My Dad's Cheating With Your Mom

Date: August 20, 2000, Late Edition - Final
Byline: By Gary Krist

By Frederick Reiken.
312 pp. New York:
Harcourt. $24.


Few people believe me when I tell them that northern New Jersey in the mid- to late 20th century was charmed territory. It's always difficult to convince them of the sweet ruefulness of the place, or to convey the particular brand of unassuming grace that somehow flourished in that hodgepodge of industrial squalor, polluted swampland and blandly pleasant housing developments. Of course, New York City always loomed on the horizon, with its brash prospects of glamour and red-hot centrality. But in its shadow, we New Jerseyans were able to pass safely under the radar of cultural relevance. Einstein and Springsteen notwithstanding, we felt blessedly free of the pressures of fame and fashion, and could play out, in our own modest way, the dramas of sheer ordinariness.

Frederick Reiken seems to understand all of this. And in ''The Lost Legends of New Jersey,'' his affectionate but tough-minded second novel (after his elegantly turned debut, ''The Odd Sea''), he captures the poetry of the New Jersey condition, circa 1980, with a rare precision. In scene after scene of this novel-in-stories, he gets the amiable melancholy of suburbia -- at least the suburbia I knew -- exactly right. Whether he's depicting the mournful uneasiness of two siblings on a last moonlit bike ride or the bewilderment of an estranged father giving himself over to the healing power of a Jacques Cousteau special, Reiken knows how to charge the quietest domestic scenes with consequence and emotion.

The novel focuses on three families -- two Jewish, one Italian -- making their way fitfully in the Livingston, N.J., of the late 1970's and early 1980's. The Rubins and the Berkowitzes begin as close friends, their sons Anthony and Jay inseparable companions. They all share a beach house at the Jersey Shore, where the adults spend their evenings drinking (a lot) and amusing themselves with impromptu lectures on the Yiddish constellations: ''Anthony's father raised his hand. He pointed up to a bright zigzag of four stars. 'Right there,' he said. 'We can see the shiny belt of the Yenta, Miriam. . . . And below Miriam, down on the horizon. That's Ira Nusbaum, the Swindler.''

The personalities down on earth prove to be no less colorful. Michael Rubin, the Morally Confused Doctor, and Claudia Berkowitz, the Shiksa Bombshell, turn out to be sleeping together. The affair continues long after it becomes common knowledge -- until the night Jess Rubin, the Wronged Wife, appears on the Berkowitzes' lawn and begins throwing rocks through their windows. An unstable person even in the best of times, Jess takes off for Florida, leaving both families to sort through the morass of guilt, resentment and fractured hope that is left behind.

Reiken explores the shocks and aftershocks of these developments from multiple perspectives, devoting a few chapters to the point of view of each major player. He is adept at drawing weak but appealing adults who, no matter how well-meaning, find themselves subordinating their basic decency to the dictates of wayward desire. But the most inspired creations in the book are Reiken's teenage characters -- Jay and Anthony and Juliette Dimiglio, Anthony's next-door neighbor -- who must struggle for stability amid the disruptions caused by their parents' lapses. Juliette is especially fascinating. Sullen, moody and hardened by circumstances (her mother's suicide and her father's general fecklessness), she is unashamed of her reputation as a ''loose Catholic girl.'' Yet she is redeemed by a wry intelligence that enables her to see herself and her limited prospects with uncommon clarity.

In one typically arresting chapter, Juliette runs into Jay, whom she barely knows, at a local zoo, long after closing time. Both teenagers have been wandering along the fence, brooding about their woes, and in the course of an understated but affecting scene they find comfort in this chance encounter:

''She said, 'He cheats on me all the time, with stupid cheerleaders. Thinks I'm blind.'

'' 'Do you cheat on him?'

''She said, 'Not yet.'

'' 'You shouldn't cheat,' Jay said. 'It wrecks things.' . . .

''She pulled him close and laced both arms around him. She said, 'Don't worry. This isn't cheating.'

''He said, 'I know.' ''

While from a distance the episode might appear romantic, even sexual, it's actually something more innocent. These are just two troubled kids surprised by their own tenderness.

''The Lost Legends of New Jersey'' is full of such moments of casual power. And if ultimately they don't mesh into a seamless and shapely narrative, this is an easily forgivable flaw, more than redeemed by Reiken's remarkable generosity of spirit. Suburban life has taken a beating in our literature over the years, most recently at the hands of some talented but stunningly bitter writers who seem to have constructed their versions from elements of old novels and their own residual adolescent anger. After such depictions of suburbia as a hotbed of hypocrisy and blank despair, Frederick Reiken's more forgiving vision comes as a welcome relief.

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