“My teacher told the class that if we feel strongly about our stories that we should submit them to a publication. I’m submitting this one to Jersey Devil Press. I read that one of its main criteria for accepted submission is quality,” reads one of the pieces in this collection of stories, many of which first ran on the Jersey Devil Web site. The quality here is less anything like artistic quality and more like quality of place, the quality of a Taco Bell franchise, for instance, at once forgettable and rich with details that seem to demand an ironic gaze. This is a quality shared by narrators for disparate stories, a longing for the coolness of Bruce Lee movies and untoasted Pop-Tarts, or the hope “that the McRib sandwich would taste as good as it looked on the commercials…that the 11 herbs and spices represented a genuine mystery; that the individual locations were part of something larger than themselves, and that chains had discernable personalities.”
It is a hope unfulfilled, and most of the stories here are “haunted by nothing,” to quote another line. They feel, amidst the bluster of brand names and detritus of strip mall culture, like “When the Apocalyptic Armageddon of Y2K finally arrived, and not a damn thing happened.” One predominant sense is that we’re being presented, here, with exercise pieces, skits penned out at the spur of the moment, unplanned, winking a little too loudly at the porn industry or junk food. There’s a unpleasantly unfunny jokey-ness. And, maybe worse, an unsettling feeling of reading something unready, unfinished.
A notable and necessary exception is Kate Delany’s brief and tonic “Jersey Fresh,” a story which stabs at some of the problems plaguing all the other pages. “You just love how authentic and unpretentious everything is: the hyper-laminated menus, the dump wait-staff, the enormous windows with a view of the highway on one side, of a brick wall on the other.” A story about a native returning to Jersey from California–obsessing, over scrapple and eggs, with veganism, raw diets–who can’t get enough of how everything is just “so Jersey” back in the Garden State. “For several minutes, you marvel over the chocolate chip muffin on the menu which no one, you insist, would ever eat on the West Coast and that’s what’s so great about being back here! No one gives a shit!” There’s a wisdom to Delany’s story, craftsmanship in her construction, a rage and a sympathy, real characters and real images. “Jersey Fresh” is a page and a half of real quality; it’s a pity the rest of the volume can’t measure up.