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A Teenage Hero Dwells in a Mythic, Magic Garden State

THE LOST LEGENDS OF NEW JERSEY by Frederick Reiken; Harcourt, $24, 314 pages


Atlantis, Camelot, Mt. Olympus. These are the places that are usually associated with legends, not Allenhurst, Livingston or the Meadowlands of New Jersey. Yet, through the eyes of teenage Anthony Rubin, author Frederick Reiken has created a rich, seductive mythology out of the ordinary places and people of the Garden State in his second novel, "The Lost Legends of New Jersey."

Anthony and his friends are particularly in need of myths to make sense of their world, for the New Jersey they inhabit in the late 1970s through early 1980s is fraught with uncertainty and loss. So when Anthony's father, Michael, names the Jewish constellations ("the Yenta, Miriam--Maury, the Disappointment") one night at the vacation house the Rubins share with Anthony's friend Jay Berkowitz and his family, stargazing becomes a comfort and minor obsession for two boys who quickly learn two of their parents are having an affair. But the mythology of the stars is cold comfort for Jess Rubin, Anthony's mother, whose discovery of her husband's infidelity pushes her further into depression, precipitates the sudden end of the family's vacation at the Jersey shore and underlies her leaving her family in spectacular fashion a year later.

Jess' departure to Florida, where she finds solace underwater as a scuba diver, is a wrenching loss for Anthony and fuels his search for life's meaning and connections: "Always Anthony wanted answers. He wanted some logical story to explain why she was gone. So he invented the explanations, [made] things up, [tried] to see how it all might fit into a legend. . . . He saw everything around him as a legend." Like most children who endure divorce, Anthony and his sister survive. Anthony even excels as a hockey player, gaining an amount of recognition that diffuses the longing he feels for his old life, which not only includes his mother, but his friend Jay, who moves away after Jess reveals his mother's affair with Anthony's father.

While the novel is told primarily from the perspective of Anthony, Reiken gives telling glimpses into the minds and breaking hearts of others in Anthony's intimate circle. We come to know, if not completely understand, his mentally fragile mother Jess, raised as an Orthodox Jew but seeking a broader, more eventful life than that prescribed by her faith and her parents. There's Michael, a feckless seeker of love who derailed his own dreams of playing the clarinet by taking the safer path into medicine and who sees himself as the "successful secular Jewish professional who tries to do right but is plagued by his unconscious, internal contradictions." Also memorable is Michael's father, Max, an 80-something romantic still seeking his b'shert (soul mate) who counsels his son that, when emotionally lost, he must look for the "openings and clearings" in life. Even Claudia Berkowitz, Jay's mother and Michael's brazen lover, is made human through Reiken's incisive look into her mind and desperate dreams.

Interesting as these and other characters are, it is Anthony who emerges as the emotional center of the novel. Caught somewhere between the mythically looming adults and his mostly pragmatic sister and friends, Anthony's journey forces him to make sense of and peace with his longing and pain. An important, very earthbound, guide in his journey is his teenage neighbor, Juliette Dimiglio. In Anthony's legend-starved mind, he imagines Juliette a princess, her mother a dancer and her father a fearsome Mafioso. The reality is much more prosaic, and sadder--Vince Dimiglio is an unlucky gambler in over his head with loan sharks and an abusive husband to boot. When Mrs. Dimiglio makes her exit in grisly fashion in the family's garage some months after his mother's departure, Anthony senses a shared loss with Juliette and begins, in his hesitant, circumspect way, to pursue her, despite her violent boyfriend and Juliette's own rejections. The connection Anthony and Juliette eventually make, and the lessons she teaches him, are about more than teenage coupling in Anthony's bedroom. They are a way for both of them to make a transition from loss to an emotional and, in some cases, physical healing.

Of Anthony's legend-seeking behavior, the author writes: "He didn't understand why he did this, because New Jersey was not legend. It was the armpit of America, according to most people." That image is most convincingly dispelled by Reiken, who has woven a magical story as entrancing as "Le Morte d'Arthur," the Sir Thomas Malory tale that becomes a touchstone for Anthony's emotional quest. As evocative of suburban life as the best work of Philip Roth or John Updike, "The Lost Legends of New Jersey" is accessible to adults and mature adolescents everywhere and is, for this reader, one of the finest novels published so far this year.

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