A Call From Jersey

by P. F. Kluge, The Overlook Press

Novels featuring failed novelists as main characters have a rich history—witness Richard Ford's The Sportswriter and London Fields by Martin Amis. With A Call From Jersey, P.F. Kluge adds a potential classic to the genre. Kluge's main character, George Griffin, earns his living writing a syndicated travel column called "Faraway Places, Backyard Adventures." The column affords him a comfortable if peripatetic life, allowing him to take the long-distance perspective on everything—until a missive marked "CONFIDENTIAL" arrives at his hotel in Bangkok. It's a note from his father, Hans Greifinger, begging him to come home. Tucked inside is an invitation to his twentieth high school class reunion.

Recalled to his childhood neighborhood in Mountainside, New Jersey, George finds his father fretting over various disappointments, including George's wasted talents. "You went from Lowell Thomas to Robin Leach," he complains to his son. "I see better writing in my Burpee seed catalog." George confesses to stalled nonfiction and novels that never got further than an outline, but Hans has his own unfinished business, and he ropes George into it. They're going to Florida to visit Hans's long-lost brother, the one who chose the wrong side in World War II.

A Call From Jersey alternates between the voices of Hans and George, two generations of ordinary German-American men who are a little bit lost. Kluge brings both characters to life in satisfying detail. Hans's memories of immigrating to New York in 1928 and raising a family in New Jersey sing with a heartbreaking appreciation of simple things: oranges in grocery stores; barbershop shaves; boxing. Through it all Heinz—the older brother Hans idolizes, the one everybody liked—haunts Hans.

Two major themes move the novel: the importance of home and the power of choice. Heinz chooses the losing fight, the immoral one, but ultimately his embracing of home rescues him. George must choose between a safe, homeless life and an uncertain homecoming. Hans is preoccupied by what it means to be an American. Choice, for him, is a luxury he thinks he cannot afford until his son is settled.

In the end, though, even Hans has options. His is the final chapter in A Call From Jersey, and his stoic voice lets us know that there are no hard and fast endings. In his youth, "my time of oranges," as he calls it, "We had a lot left to learn and some of it wasn't so good." George is served the same lesson at his high school reunion, where insecurity and discontent ruin more than one romantic dance.

A Call From Jersey is beautifully moody, with characters that live beyond the last page. George may have trouble living up to his potential; Kluge, thankfully, graces us with ever more engrossing fiction.

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