Nearly every morning over the past year I’ve woken to sounds of hammering, drilling, or trucks rumbling down small side streets as they haul cargo for nearby construction sites. The sounds are signs of a changing Jersey City, as old historic buildings are gutted and renovated, like the one next to me, while luxury condos rise on once vacant lots. Sometimes I’ll come across an empty or abandoned building with boarded windows and a padlocked door, nestled between old and new construction. Each vacant home has a story to tell, especially against the backdrop of the city’s transformation.
When I saw that Nell Zink’s latest novel, Nicotine, featured an anarchist community squatting in present-day Jersey City, I was curious to see how the city was portrayed and what aspects, if any, jibed with reality.
Haves and Have-Nots
Zink set her novel in Jersey City because she wanted to address income disparity. “Polarization is such a big theme in American culture right now,” she says. “The income polarization that you get in New York City is really radical, and everybody knows it.”
I caught up with Zink via Skype while she was at a writers’ residency in Israel. Zink, 53, grew up in rural Virginia but has lived in Germany since 2000. During her twenties she spent a few years in Hoboken and the Paulus Hook section of Jersey City. At the time, she worked as a secretary for Colgate-Palmolive.
“We were like pioneers for being in Paulus Hook,” Zink says. Most of the people she knew in the early ’90s who also worked in Manhattan were moving to places like Williamsburg and Greenpoint. “Jersey City was just like those places on old maps that they would’ve left blank and written ‘Here be Monsters.’ You really felt adventurous going anywhere beyond right downtown.”
Despite her sense of being in a no-man’s land, she recalls an intimate, small-town feel, where everyone helped each other out.
Her life experience has been multifaceted—she played guitar in a band; earned a PhD in Media Studies; had gigs as a bricklayer, technical writer, and translator; and once launched an indie rock fan zine called “Animal Review,” where she published short stories.
Zink rose to popularity after the publication of her novel The Wallcreeper, in 2014, followed by Mislaid in 2015, which was long-listed for the National Book Award.
With Nicotine, Zink says she chose to go in a different direction from Mislaid, which focuses on issues of race. “I decided to go more with a race neutral milieu and even kind of a race neutral generation, where people are trying to move past that,” she says. “These younger people have a very different approach to those kinds of questions of identity.”
Got a Light?
Nicotine is the name of a house in an unnamed activist neighborhood in Jersey City occupied by those young people Zink was talking about—friendly, middle-class anarchists who represent a number of different causes but are bound together by their love for nicotine in all its forms. The self-sustaining community also has a feminist house called Stayfree. There is the DJD house that is dedicated to alternative energy sources, whose name could stand for its fictitious address on Don Juan Drive but also refers to the Donald Judd Daybed, an enormous sofa on the ground floor where the residents sleep together. Finally, there is Tranquility, the indigenous peoples’ rights house. Recent college graduate Penny Baker, who has smoked at least since age 12, shows up at Nicotine to claim ownership after the death of her father, Norm Baker, with the intention of kicking out the squatters and fixing up the place while she looks for a job. Penny’s thrown off course when she falls for one of the squatters, a tobacco-chewing, self-identified asexual man named Rob. She moves into the Tranquility house and attempts to keep her self-interested older half-brother, Matt, and mother, Amalia, at bay while she melds in with the activists.
We first learn about the Nicotine house during a conversation that takes place in Morristown at the mansion of Penny’s mother, Amalia, following Norm’s funeral. Amalia was rescued from a trash heap in Cartagena, Colombia when she was 13 by Norm, a Jewish man and a Shaman with a cult-like following. Amalia, who hasn’t seen the Jersey City house, describes it as a “falling-down house in a big slum … where Norm’s parents die in a fire because his father is smoking in bed.” The narrator later describes Penny’s arrival at the Grove Street PATH station and a long walk she takes to get to the house. The narrator proceeds with a dismal and stark portrait:
The neighborhood soon becomes alarmingly ugly. Clapboard row houses wear crooked aluminum siding in mildewed pastel shades. Concrete front stoops are faced on the sides with orange-hued fake brickwork. Flimsy aluminum railings imitate wrought iron. Blocks of cheap postwar construction alternate with blocks of prefab that could have been put up yesterday.
As I read the description, I tried to locate the neighborhood but had to quickly let go of any hope for specificity, realizing that the conversations that follow among the squatters are wry and offbeat, the style satrical. Zink says she never meant to provide a detailed reconstruction of Jersey City, especially given her writing style, which relies heavily on dialog.
“I deliberately made it vague,” Zink says. “It is sort of off in some kind of no-man’s land where you strike off north from the PATH line.”
Zink says the absence of geographic detail was an attempt to make the novel more like TV. In the narrative, Jersey City is like a location on a Hollywood set that stands in for a generic urban setting.
“As a novelist I was working in a way where I didn’t have to say, ‘Here is the block, here is the street, here is the kind of mailbox they had,’” Zink says. “In this book I wasn’t concerned with that at all. I was trying to do a fast-moving story with a lot of dialog.”
The dialog can be disorienting as it jumps from topic to topic, where no person or subject is off limits. There is little space for the reader to catch her breath as conflicts arise, events unfold, and relationships grow ever more complicated. The reader is along for the bumpy ride, as the characters who are insightful, yet full of contradictions, attempt to make sense of their place in the world, especially as it pertains to the value of activism. A woman named Sorry, who represents older feminists, expounds: “But our ambitions are trivial as all get-out. … Live one day at a time, and try to afford cigarettes by living in New Jersey.”
Attempting to find a new squatter community, the cohort takes a road trip out West, setting their sights on Oakland. The narrator offers this bit of logic: “None of them knows anything about Oakland, except that it is near rich places (San Francisco, Palo Alto), yet itself poor as Jersey City. They hope for Jersey City-like conditions.”
Zink explains, “These characters are set in their ways. They run away for a reason because to start over they need a new perspective.” She says her characterization was consistent with what she has observed in similar squatter communities that are linked by a network. “They only pay attention to what goes on at these other CHA houses,” she says. “It is partly a function of who they are.”
(In the novel, CHA refers to the Community Housing Action, an umbrella organization for housing co-ops located throughout North Jersey.)
While the characters in Nicotine may have a skewed sense of the city they inhabit, Zink does drill down into the geography of the squatter house and the community itself. She invents a world that offers a mosaic of characters, who aren’t afraid to say what they think. She isn’t afraid of shocking or jolting the reader with sardonic wit and humor. Penny sums up Zink’s approach to the writing: “It’s not my job to tell the story in a way that makes me look good.”—JCM