Before Donald Trump began his march to the White House, before he had his own line of clothing, and before he had his own television show, he was simply a real- estate mogul, setting up casino after casino in Atlantic City. Before Trump dug his grubby paws into the sand, though, Atlantic City was a place of fortune tellers and food stands, a place where families could go for a day or a week to get away from their lives in the New Jersey and Philadelphia suburbs. Louis Greenstein’s debut novel, Mr. Boardwalk (New Door Books, 2014) chronicles that time, when things at least seemed simpler—not counting the racial politics that are glossed over by the suburbanites, narrator of the novel included.
Mr. Boardwalk takes place almost entirely in the memories of Jason Benson, a copywriter currently living in New York, but who grew up in Philadelphia and spent his summers working the Atlantic City boardwalk—first helping out in his father’s pretzel shop, then as a professional juggler. At the outset, Jason realizes he must finally tell his wife and daughter, with whom he’s been on the outs, that he owns a house in Atlantic City. This secret, one that while bad, shouldn’t necessarily be the impetus for an entire novel—is just that. The family takes a trip down to Atlantic City to see the house and over the course of their day trip to the boardwalk and, finally to the house, Jason relates the joys of growing up in Atlantic City.
He talks about the times he tried drugs and had sex for the first time, and about the gypsies he knew. He talks about how his father lied to him repeatedly (about his mother being so sick, about getting sued, etc). He talks about how he came to buy the house: the girl he was in puppy love with as a high-school junior was going to live with him permanently in Atlantic City, and they would become the greatest juggling duo to ever grace the rotted boardwalk planks. As Jason reveals more and more of his story, his family softens to him and, in a scene befitting a movie you’d see on one of the free cable channels in an Atlantic City hotel, he begins to teach his family to juggle.
Predictable plot aside, Mr. Boardwalk is a debut novel in almost every sense. On a line level, you can feel Greenstein working his way through what would make a good, easy-to-read story. From the outset, he establishes what the book will be about, writing: “A question hovers like a purple cloud: Why didn’t I tell Eileen until three days ago that I have owned a house here for the past twenty-two years? I want to ignore that issue. It’s not a big deal, right?” What follows is Greenstein’s explanation of that central question. Beyond that, Greenstein makes few slip-ups on a sentence level. One of the only moments that really stands out as awkward is during Jason’s first sexual encounter, under the Atlantic City boardwalk with the current love of his life, Sarah: “We copulated, grunting and grinding, covered head to toe with sand, sweating like it was the middle of summer.”
Where Greenstein shines is his connection to the nostalgic beauty that people who grew up in New Jersey or went to Atlantic City will appreciate and understand. Given the clarity and texture of the setting, it isn’t a far cry to imagine that Greenstein has called upon his own memories. He depicts a simpler time, when all that mattered was that you could get a good hot pretzel and see a street performer wherever you went on the boardwalk.
If you’re looking for a book to change your world, this isn’t it. However, that isn’t necessarily a shortcoming: Mr. Boardwalk is a pleasant read for the beach or poolside, some of the best places to relive what has been lost.
Sam Slaughter is the author of When You Cross That Line, God in Neon, and Dogs. His work has appeared in places such as Midwestern Gothic, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, and elsewhere. He is the spirits writer for The Manual and can be found online at www.samslaughterthewriter.com and on Twitter @slaughterwrites.
Louis Greenstein‘s writing has crossed multiple genres, from scripts for the Emmy Award-winning Nickelodeon series
to stage plays performed by theaters around the country. Several of his plays are available in print, and his playwriting has been honored with a fellowship from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts.
His musical show, One Child Born: The Music of Laura Nyro, co-written with performer Kate Ferber, has traveled to multiple venues in New York City and elsewhere. The show will be featured at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in December 2015.