“The forgotten fifth borough. The Cultural Void. Home of the world-famous ferry, the world’s largest garbage dump, and the world’s largest collection of identical people…”
That’s the opening description of Staten Island in Fresh Kills, the recent first novel by Bill Loehfelm, a native of the borough. Is that how Loehfelm — who relocated to New Orleans in 1997 — really feels about the place? When I asked him about it, he sounded more disappointed than disgusted.
“I’ve never been anywhere where people put more effort into being exactly the same,” he said. “Conformity is virtue one there. And if you’re not like that, the place isn’t for you.”
As a Staten Island native myself — all too familiar with the borough’s reputation as a “guidopolis” of tanning salons, spiky hair and house music — I found it easy to relate to Loehfelm’s harsh descriptions of the borough (full disclosure: Loehfelm was an English teacher at my high school).
Three major Staten Island landmarks play a significant role in Loehfelm’s novel about John Sanders Jr. (“Junior”) and his search for his father’s killer: the Fresh Kills landfill, the Staten Island Mall, and the parking lots at the South Beach boardwalk.
Here’s Junior meditating on the Fresh Kills dump: “They try to hide it, wall it off with dirt mounds covered in scraggly greenery… They try to ignore it, running the West Shore Expressway right through the middle of it. They brag about herons and egrets nesting in the waterways behind it. But you can’t hide it. How can you hide millions upon millions of tons of fucking garbage? Because that’s what it is.”
I told Loehfelm I never really noticed the dump. But I grew up on the north shore of the Island, in West Brighton, far away from it; Loehfelm said, where he grew up in the South Shore community of Eltingville, the “garbage juice” smell was something to be reckoned with.
I asked Loehfelm about incidents in the book which I found so vivid that I suspected they were autobiographical — like Junior’s first visit in years to the Staten Island Mall, where he’s accosted by a group of teenage faux-thugs.
Loehfelm said no, but he’s “sure” that similar incidents happened to him and his friends all the time (minus the gun). Like Loehfelm, Junior doesn’t fit in on Staten Island, which makes him target for high school tough guys, for whom the mall is a safe haven.
“There’s a very clear standard for fitting in on Staten Island,” he told me. “You’ve got to have the right haircut, and the right clothes, and the right jewelry, and the right car and go to the right school. And if you don’t do that stuff people let you know it. You definitely feel culled from the herd.”
Some of Fresh Kills is set in the parking lots at South Beach, where the guidos hold their turf and the metalheads stay far away. (Personally, I was not a big South Beach guy, preferring to blow off steam at a metal or hardcore show at the Rock Palace on Van Pelt Avenue.) In Fresh Kills a friend of Junior’s points out how everyone hung in the parking lots, yet no one ever bothered to walk a few feet to get to the beach itself.
“It just seemed to sum up the island,” he said. “Everybody gets all dressed up, and gets their cars together and get their clothes together and gets a case of beer, and go and stand around in a parking lot, even though the beach is 100 yards away.”
Loehfelm, who plans to set his next book on Staten Island as well, does see some good in his hometown. He notes that the Island is filled with good people who care about one another and want to see each other succeed. But given his harsh treatment of Staten Island in Fresh Kills, could he imagine returning for a book signing?
“They might kill me,” he laughs.