“Palisades Park,” the new novel by Alan Brennert, belongs to a genre we might call “nostalgia fiction.” Unlike historical fiction, nostalgia fiction gets its retrospective fabric on the cheap, purchasing it by the decade rather than by the century; ultimately, it’s much less interested in examining the contexts of epochal events than it is in affirming the biases of readers who go around insisting that everything was better back in the day.
Perhaps fittingly for a story set largely in an amusement park, Brennert’s novel glides right by some of the most pivotal moments in 20th-century American history — the Great Depression, World War II, the birth of the civil rights movement — like a mechanized gondola floating past painted scenes in a tunnel of love. There’s not much time for reflection. Instead, the point of this ride is to re-create a soothingly familiar, morally comprehensible, relatively recent past. And the key to achieving it, apparently, is to flash-distill that past until practically all that’s left are tiny details triggering warm memories.
Over the several decades we follow the Stopka family — married New Jerseyans Eddie and Adele and their children, Antoinette and Jack — we will never, no matter what other complaints we might wish to air, be able to say that Brennert didn’t do enough to set the scene. Restaurants and drugstores and comic-book stores aren’t simply described; their names, as well as the names of their owners, are given (and, in some cases, their addresses provided). When an old-time radio broadcast is mentioned, the originating station’s call letters, the time of day that the broadcast aired and the names of the announcers are faithfully, lovingly recalled. When a verdict is handed down inside the Cliffside Park, N.J. courthouse, the court’s official recorder — someone whose germaneness to the story is negligible and whose life span within the novel is but two sentences — is nevertheless identified.
You can probably guess what the main problem is with a novel like “Palisades Park,” and with nostalgia fiction in general. It’s one thing for a romance novelist to decide that heaving bosoms and torrid love scenes should come before characters’ psychological development, or for a detective novelist to sacrifice beautiful prose at the altar of plot. But when the rules of your genre ask you to subjugate these things to fetishized historicity, you invite questions along the lines of: Why even write a novel in the first place?
Why not write, instead, a
coming-of-age memoir about growing up (as Brennert did) near the Palisades, in the shadow of awesome rides like the Lindy Loop, the Flying Scooter, the Chair-o-Plane? Why not deliver an oral history of the amusement park and the cluster of communities around it? Now there’s a format that’s actually designed to absorb the flow of trivia that Brennert has allowed to gum up his fictional works, such as the names and positions of the New York Giants’ offensive lineup during the 1941-42 season (relevance to the story: Someone is listening to a football game on the radio) or the full Midwestern itinerary of a traveling stunt diver over the course of the summer of 1950.
None of this information really matters. But since this is nostalgia fiction, it’s all there, along with a million other irrelevancies taking up ink that might have been used to help us get inside the head of, say, a wife abandoning her family to move in with a magician, or a soldier whose grueling battlefield experience has left him with a permanent case of the shakes, or a young brother and sister who barely escape a fire that kills seven children. Throughout “Palisades Park,” sex, birth, death, trauma, betrayal and the hell of war are all elided or compressed, even as the pointless and the picayune are exalted. Brennert goes to all the trouble of creating a believable-enough family of mid-century, middle-class New Jerseyans, but then cheats them out of their humanity by glossing over any human aches or ambivalences they might feel and forcing them to express themselves in embarrassing comic-book cliches.
Brennert’s previous novel, “Moloka‘i,” set in Hawaii, which he clearly loves (he has also written a novel called “Honolulu”), has been heralded by his publisher as a “book club phenomenon.” I don’t claim to know exactly which buttons a novel has to pushto become, officially, a “book club phenomenon,” but if his newest work joins its predecessor in earning that enviable status, I’ll at least have some idea. Such a novel moves along at a brisk pace, unencumbered by hurdles of richness or complexity. Its dialogue crackles with exposition. And after turning the 432nd page, the satisfied reader sighs, “Yes, he got that part exactly right. The deep-fried hot dogs at Hiram’s on Palisade Avenue really were crispy on the outside and succulent on the inside. I remember them well.”
Turrentine, a frequent Book World reviewer, is an editor at OnEarth magazine.
Michael Dirda is on vacation.
By Alan Brennert
432 pp. $25.99