In “4th of July, Asbury Park” the song, Bruce Springsteen painted Independence Day in his faded Jersey Shore hometown as a mingling of “wizards playing pinball,” “factory girls,” and “switchblade lovers so fast, so shiny, so sharp.” It sounded violent and seamy, but balletic too, and linking the scene to that date stamped it as all America’s property.
4th of July, Asbury Park the book follows up on the premise of Springsteen’s tune and even takes the title as a narrative suggestion: It’s a history that checks in only on the Fourth of July, every couple decades or so, to see what’s new in town. To author Daniel Wolff’s credit, this sounds like a good idea. Set a controlled variable with appealing symbolism, then graph the results in a ready-made national context.
Trouble is, the big picture looms so large that the small one remains a blur, despite engaging interludes on chain-smoking native son Stephen Crane and the Boss himself (Wolff is primarily a music writer). Each chapter finds Asbury Park awash in the country’s latest cultural battles (Prohibition, immigration quotas, race riots, etc.), always seeming to be “at the forefront of a national trend.” But being endlessly told to see the town as archetype makes it tough to believe in it as a town. That was Springsteen’s trick—keeping things local. He never bothered mentioning that his straight-six greasers were actually patriots, because he knew we’d want them to be.