An unlikely savior on 9-11: The surf was up. The remnants of Hurricane Erin had left the Eastern Seaboard with a surging swell that prompted a segment of surfing firemen to change their schedules that morning. The waves saved a few lives that day, and also led to some serious survivor’s guilt — a theme that pervades Jill Eisenstadt’s fiction.
For the Rockaway native, it was yet another example of the beachside community’s eerie tendency to turn up at the center of events stranger and more tragic than anything you could invent. “Rockaway to me seems so haunted,” Eisenstadt says. “All the stuff that’s happened there, it just seems cursed. If you’re near an airport” — the trauma-scarred Queens peninsula lies just across Jamaica Bay from JFK — “you’re gonna have a chance of a major plane crash. And you have all these firefighters and other city workers, so you’re gonna have a huge death toll in 9-11. If you’re on the ocean and the bay, there’s gonna be storms. You get the feeling like one day it’s just gonna be swallowed up completely.”
A safe, sleepy haven it is not. Which is why it gave Eisenstadt, who is fifty-four, a perverse thrill to invent a family named the Glassmans, who move to Rockaway from Tribeca in the summer of 2002, still reeling from the effects of September 11 on Lower Manhattan. In the unmoored period following the attacks, Eisenstadt had watched droves of families flee the city — for the suburbs or upstate or out West. The author’s own home base seemed an absurd spot for a family to choose in the name of security. “I started thinking, nobody would move to Rockaway to feel safer,” she recalls. “The idea seemed so ridiculous to me that I had to do it.”
The graceful novel that emerged is Swell, Eisenstadt’s first book in twenty-six years and third overall; its publication marks exactly three decades since her much buzzed-about debut, From Rockaway. With that novel Eisenstadt was anointed a member of the “Literary Brat Pack,” a media construct for the talented young New York writers who mined the disenchantments of coming of age in the Eighties. Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City and Bret Easton Ellis’s Less Than Zero led the way. Tama Janowitz and her Slaves of New York was another touchstone. So was Eisenstadt’s From Rockaway.
The books had enough in common — they tended to be filled with drug-drenched disillusionment, and each was short but packed an emotional wallop — that the writers were lumped together in a scene that never was. “I’ve maybe spoken five sentences back and forth to Jay in my life,” Eisenstadt says of McInerney. Janowitz, she says, “was never hanging out with us, even accidentally.” As for Ellis, “I hung out with Bret because I went to college with him.” Indeed, he was the only person mentioned by name in the acknowledgments section of her debut: “And to Bret Easton Ellis for lighting the way,” she’d written.
When From Rockaway was released in 1987, the knee-jerk perception of critics seemed to be that Ellis and Less Than Zero had perhaps lighted that way a bit too brightly. Lead characters in both books came from a New England college called Camden, a stand-in for their writers’ alma mater, Bennington, known then — as now — as a liberal enclave for creative city kids prone to experimenting with sex and drugs and nihilism. Donna Tartt was another future lit star on campus in those years, though her debut, The Secret History, came out in 1992, and its ersatz Bennington was dubbed Hampden, not Camden. Clearly, this talented young crew was drinking from the same well of inspiration.
To some, it all felt a little too cozy and convenient, perpetuating the notion that it was always more about who you knew than the quality of your prose. It didn’t help that every writer in question was also attractive and not shy about having a good time. Who needed to make the effort to read the books and judge them on the merits of the words on the page? There was already enough to judge on the surface.
Except here’s the thing: These books stand up. They’re not overrated debuts by dilettantes; they’re sharp-edged works by serious talents. Others, of course, saw what they wanted to see, including this paper: The Village Voice was vicious to Eisenstadt’s debut. She remembers a mean-spirited story accompanied by a drawing of her in a baby carriage. The caption read “Jill Spits Up.”
The treatment left scars. After listening perhaps a bit too closely to her detractors, Eisenstadt found herself unable to return to writing about the land of her youth. She continued to publish journalism — in the New York Times, Vogue, New York magazine, and elsewhere — as she raised three daughters in Brooklyn, but fiction, especially Rockaway-set fiction, was something she could no longer abide.
Now, three decades later, Eisenstadt has returned to Rockaway. Swell is a family drama. It’s comic, it’s dark; it’s layered with ghosts and guilt and demons. It plays with our notions of heroes and heroism, and jabs at our one-dimensional instinct to deify in the face of tragedy. In addition to the dislocated Glassman clan, you’ll meet much of the old gang that graced the pages of From Rockaway. There’s Tim, a recovering-alcoholic fireman spared from the Trade Center because the surf was up that day. Tim’s best friend, Chowder, was not so lucky; he died in the towers, and now Tim is romancing his widow, Peg. We last saw these characters as aimless high school grads in the late Eighties. Their sad, but nevertheless heroic, lives since might ring a little too true for those who can relate.
Summer is coming, and soon those Rockaway beaches will be packed with sweating city-dwellers and hipster surfers as the onslaught of gentrification continues. On those hot days ahead it will seem like another sunny, carefree beach town.
It’s not, and it never was. Rockaway, the haunted, cursed land of plane crashes and heartbreaking 9-11 loss and hurricanes that threaten to swallow it whole — the perfect muse for a writer who has finally decided to return.
By Jill Eisenstadt
Lee Boudroux Books