Max Darrigan's father is warm and untidy, with a restless mind and a thirst for the unexpected. Max's mother died when he was a year old, and his father has brought him up in the small New Jersey town where he teaches math at the local high school.
He is a big man, with steel-rimmed glasses and an accommodating and hairy chest. With a T-shirt on, it made a comforting pillow for the boy. "Cotton and hair are what I remember of him," Max tells us.
"New Jersey," in its opening chapters, seems to promise a novel about a boy growing up in a mixture of war and peace with his overwhelming and maddening father. But Max's father is not maddening; he is mad. And Joseph Monninger's affecting and subtle novel becomes remarkable in that it is not about a father's presence but about his absence.
As in "A Death in the Family," it uses a domestic tragedy as a means of passage, bringing an adolescent into an awareness of the wider meaning and perils of life.
Max's father--we never learn his name--is a man with an urge to tinker, to read two or three books and a dozen magazines at a time, and to take apart and reassemble in his own idiosyncratic design the ideas he absorbs. There is something wonderful about him to a small boy growing up, and there is something ominous too. Asked a question, "he delivered a deluge, drowning the questioner in a bath of pertinent facts and side issues," Max recalls. "He could not judge a mind outside his own."
The father is on a precarious borderline. He takes Max on a trip to the beach where, in a sudden burst of angry exaltation, he refuses to pay the beach fee and is almost arrested. "What is a law but the answer to a question?," he asks the puzzled policeman whom he grills about human and property rights. The phrase is nice, but there is an edge of danger to the whole performance. The journeys that Max takes with his father go increasingly out of control.
That same summer, the father decides to excavate his backyard in search of historical artifacts. Max assists him, doubtful but trusting. But the digging goes on, the hole gets deeper, the neighbors complain, the local paper writes about the town crank. When Max begins to express his doubt, his father embraces him and lets him off the job. It is suddenly a final farewell. Max's uncle and aunt come to take him away to live with them; the father goes on digging himself deeper into his hole and his obsessions. Eventually, he wanders away.
And "New Jersey" becomes the story of Max's growing up. It is an idyllic one, in the way that remembered adolescences can be. His uncle is generous and imaginative; in him, the spark that incinerated his brother is simply a spark of life. Max goes to school, makes friends, falls in love, spends long summers hanging out and the winters skating.
Monninger depicts these familiar scenes with a special resonance. They are framed by loss, by Max's awareness that an unresolved part of himself is away and wandering, and by his grievance against his father for rejecting him. Because madness feels, to love, like rejection. At one point, he goes to his father's empty house and suffers a brief breakdown.
But these shadows give form and depth to the pleasures of his growing up. He makes close friends with the family next door. His bosom companion is Martin, mercurial, impulsive and vulnerable. Martin's older brother, Stu, is tense and driven, a rebel whose rebellion takes the form of endless projects to make money. Martin's sister, Marcie, is a pudgy, formless child who takes shape before our eyes. She possesses a boundless charity and sets up a dispensary in her backyard for all the sick and stray animals in the neighborhood.
As the next few years pass, things happen. Max has a chaste and idealistic love affair with Chris, another neighbor. Then he betrays her briefly with her restless older sister who has been out in life--college, that is--has been wounded and has come back to wound in her turn. It is an early lesson from the other side of adolescence: Living is not only consenting to receive happiness and pain, it is consenting to inflict it.
Max, who lives, as adolescents will, in the world of his feelings, is pierced by the adult knowledge that acts have consequences. Chris eventually breaks with him. The same painful awareness comes to his friends. Martin gets his girlfriend pregnant. After a futile, grisly expedition to a New York abortionist--Chris and Max go with them and the whole episode takes on nightmare colors--he agrees to marry her and live in the recreation room of her parent's house.
In a sense, life has plundered Martin from the dream kingdom he shared with his friends. The example devastates Stu, Marcie and Max in different ways; and in different ways, we see them growing up.