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Helene Stapinski’s tough-minded memoir interweaves family stories with a well-researched history of the blighted Jersey City neighborhood she grew up in during the 1970s and ’80s. Told with deadpan humor and a refreshing lack of sentimentality, the alternately funny and disturbing anecdotes—a murderous, sociopathic grandfather, embezzling cousins, a cross-eyed bookie uncle, and modern-day Robin Hoods known as swagsters (the goods that “fall off the truck” are called swag; the guy into whose arms it happens to drop is a swagster)—form a portrait of a family as tightly knit and thoroughly corrupt as the Hudson County political machine that whirs behind the scenes.
The Stapinski clan were expert swagsters: The family dinners (often prime rib, lobster tail, and fancy cakes) were swiped from the cold-storage company where Helene’s father worked; soap and toothpaste were lifted from the local Colgate factory; the family’s books were smuggled out of a bookbinding company in Aunt Mary Ann’s oversized girdle. Stapinski captures the street-level conviviality of the urban working class while unveiling the mob-mentality hedonism, desperation, and violence lurking underneath. She accomplishes this early on, however, and the dramatic pull wanes as the stories pile up in similar shades of wackiness and brutality. Stapinski herself fades from the narrative (she wasn’t present for many of the stories she tells and doesn’t pause for much reflection), and it’s hard to know what to do with the umpteenth uncloseted skeleton without anyone pointing the way.
It’s a relief when Stapinski returns in the last third of the memoir; her own criminal career stalls out at ashtray theft, and as she trades her gritty environs for NYU and a career in journalism, the narrative coalesces around her struggle to gain perspective on her past, lending the memoir a much needed moral and emotional center. Stapinski’s frank rendering of her mixed feelings as Jersey City becomes more upscale mirrors her own sense of compromise at having left her family and its adventures in sadness behind, or nearly behind. Chronicling her initial forays into the writing process for this book, she writes, “I felt like I had to steal the family stories back, bit by bit, phone call by phone call, like a thief in the night, my relatives rightfully suspicious of my motives.” These stories, her best and only inheritance, are, like all swag, something she feels only partially entitled to. They yield the book’s most satisfying revelations on what is gained and lost in the shedding of a difficult childhood.