Jersey Barriers

August Kleinzahler.Photo: Todd Hido

August Kleinzahler, a poet and critic based in San Francisco, grew up in Fort Lee, New Jersey, just across the Hudson from the Upper West Side. As he relates in one of the several New York–haunted essays in his forthcoming collection, Cutty, One Rock: Low Characters and Strange Places, Gently Explained, the Jersey view of Manhattan is often enviously spectatorial. “The city trembles; it is a living thing, a kind of cell with nutrients and waste streaming in and out through its membrane, its vast mitochondria feeding deep inside of it, the whole thing throbbing with light.”

Kleinzahler’s family furnishes a pronounced point of contrast to this mirage of urban light, to put things mildly. The Fort Lee of his youth was a Mafia suburb, where the usual tough-guy posturing and profanity of male adolescence got considerably amped up: For growing boys, Fort Lee “was like a theme park for Tourette’s,” Kleinzahler writes. “One time I called someone a son of a bitch, which must have sounded preposterously foreign and Noël Coward–like.”

The family and the city collide disastrously in the title essay, where Kleinzahler retraces his elder brother Harris’s migration into Manhattan to work as an investment banker, and to live as a deeply closeted tough-guy hedonist. Harris’s odyssey proved shattering for the whole family. “It took me 30 years to write” the finely wrought, deeply pained reminiscence of his brother, Kleinzahler says.

Still, Kleinzahler is not the sort of writer who thrives on closure: “My art is pressured by discomfort,” he says. “When you’re happily sitting with your sweetie, watching The Sopranos, not a care in the world, you don’t then wander over to the easel or the keyboard to make some art.”

Indeed, Kleinzahler’s constitutional discomfort seems to rule out any prospect of coming back East to stay: “It would take a dirty bomb” for him to transplant himself to New York, he says. “It’s gotten too rich, among other things … The New York I’m drawn to doesn’t exist. And I really don’t want to live in Brooklyn. It’s a dump. And you can quote me on that.”

Cutty, One Rock, Farrar Straus Giroux, November.

Jersey Barriers