Rick Moody’s Garden State

Rick Moody’s first novel, Garden State (1992), emerged from his time spent in two spiritual deserts: a mental hospital, where he checked himself in for alcoholism, and northern New Jersey, where he was living at the time. The resulting novel chronicles the lives of men and women now very familiar to me, and, indeed, increasingly familiar to America: the lost generation of 20-somethings, caught between a childhood they’re unwilling to let go and an adulthood that terrifies them. As one character puts it, rather bleakly, “nothing had come of the years since high school and […] nothing would come of the years ahead.” The structure that shunted past generations into marital and parental roles went out with the ’60s, and the economy seems to have followed suit: northern New Jersey is something of an industrial wasteland, with empty malls and vast highways, but little in the way of society. Moody could not know it, in the early 1990s, but what he was capturing in his first novel were the early stages of America’s cultural collapse, visible back then only to the unlucky few too economically immobile to escape the blight, but today undeniable to all except America’s wealthiest citizens, who seek respite in ever more selective zip codes.

The cast of characters is small, and united in their disaffection. We meet Alice, a young woman and aspiring musician living with her mother (recently divorced) while staying up late touring local bars with her band, Critical Ma$$. Alice’s mother, Mrs. Smail, who is overwhelmed by her daughter’s acerbic personality, goth makeup, and rock-and-roll lifestyle: “With devotion that yielded only sometimes, Mrs. Smail had persisted in the belief that some sweetness would emerge in her daughter in her early twenties. But she was confronted only with unemployment, a steady stream of unwholesome boyfriends, and rock and roll.” Denis, one of those unwholesome boyfriends, and his step-brother Lane round out the main cast; Lane has only recently returned to Haledon, on a steady dose of anti-depressants, after the pressures of adult life proved overwhelming to him. The lives of the young people of New Jersey, we are repeatedly told, are “given over to sudden departures and humble returns,” and the narrative will bear this out, for Haledon is a place to escape from, not a place anyone elects to live in, and as such it takes on a prominent role of its own within the novel. Consider our first, lyrical description of it:

Rail lines marked the perimeters of Haledon, this isosceles triangle in the flat Eastern part of the Garden State. Freight trains ran through it like blood cells, carrying unpronounceable compounds and toxins. They rumbled past the accidents at crossing gates, past the crime scenes and late-night burials.

Charming, no? New Jersey, the “Garden State” of the title, has acres of indescribably lush landscapes, dense forests, and verdant fields, but its industrial areas look like something out of a post-apocalyptic sci-fi movie.

The physical degradation of the state seems to mirror its spiritual and social collapse, for it isn’t just secure, high-paying jobs that are conspicuous by their absence: fathers, too, are rare. “The loss of a father ruined a boy,” reflects Ruthie, Lane’s mother. “And […] it seemed to her that all the fathers in the neighborhood were gone. Well, there were fathers, but there were no dads.” Ruined boys and absent fathers makes for a tidy summary of America’s ever-growing underclass, but there is a third essential ingredient that accelerates the spread of the blight: drug addiction. Without the love of two parents, without the purpose of a family or meaningful employment, what is left to you to enjoy but the perpetual quest for ever more powerful highs?

All over Haledon, as over the nation, Lane observed this movement of need. Addictions, blossoming in personalities like parasites. All over Haledon, kids were coming apart. They bounced back for a while and then they stopped bouncing back, and surrendered to the whisper of their cells. Addiction was the counterintelligence of the flesh, the double-agency. The statistics revealed a swelling outwards, like some kind of ink spill – the guys he knew, and the guys after, just kids, still wet behind the ears, resorting to bad ideas – sexual asphyxia, self-immolation.

The kids aren’t alright.

Garden State is rough, unpolished, and unskilfully – or perhaps just incompletely – plotted. Its characters are underdeveloped, and what momentum it manages to build over the course of the narrative seems largely dissipated by the novel’s conclusion. And yet it’s also extremely compelling, if only because we recognize the honesty in Moody’s depiction of squandered potential and aimless youth, and because, even in this early effort, something of Moody’s felicity of phrasing shines through. It’s a particularly interesting read in 2019, when so much of what Moody saw nearly three decades ago has finally achieved a measure of mainstream recognition.