A humorous yet unsettling look back at a minor-league grifter family in a major-league crooked town—pre-reform Jersey City.
Stapinski’s debut invokes sensitive questions about class, domesticity, and the tolerance of corruption essential to machine politics. She artfully reconstructs her hardscrabble 1970s childhood above a tavern, and her close-knit, rambunctious family, entangled by the graft-ridden Hudson County government (her mother worked for the DMV, and an aunt was a longtime “fixer”). But to a large degree she portrays her family, like her native city, as cursed—and she explores veins of darkness behind the hearty façade: the community’s reliance on stolen goods (and the endorsement of criminality that implied), her taciturn father’s dependence on alcohol, and the violence embodied by a hate-filled grandfather (whose madness was tolerated in the community until he tried to murder members of his own family). Throughout, Stapinski uses her family-based narrative to portray an urban political culture that encouraged theft, election fraud, industrial pollution, and a looting of the tax base, while pacifying underclass residents with city-payroll jobs and mob-mentality hedonism. Along the way, she constructs a vivid picture of pre-gentrification Jersey City: a “scary” place where teenagers attended decaying movie palaces, the streets were full of deformed pencil-sellers and midget news-dealers, stolen goods were sold in the municipal buildings, and loose joints and “the numbers” were available on any street corner. Although evoking the crowded, colloquial feel of “outsider” writing, the author has a fine sense of narrative line and of relevant observation; as a result, her work simultaneously captures the street-level conviviality of the urban working class, and the desperation and violence lurking beneath.
Equally reminiscent of Samuel Fuller’s filmed melodramas, Springsteen’s “My Hometown,” and Patrick MacDonald’s All Souls (1999), this is an unusual and relevant urban family history.