Mr. Boardwalk by Louis Greenstein
Mr. Boardwalk is not a mobster. Nor is he an unemployed casino worker. Mr. Boardwalk is a kid growing up spending his summers on the Atlantic City boardwalk in the 60’s, a time when it was neither a haven for bootleggers, nor for gamblers.
Jason Benson lives in the Philly area but heads to the Jersey shore with his family every year when school gets out. There he becomes the self-titled Jason the Magnificent, perfecting a juggling act in front of the boardwalk pretzel shop his father started after dropping out of the corporate world.
Summer at the boardwalk was also a big part of growing up for me and I’m probably about the same age as the factitious Jason Benson. So Mr. Boardwalk brought back a lot of memories, like my first serious kiss with a girl from Philly under the boardwalk. My summers were in Seaside Heights rather than Atlantic City, but it had the same smell, as Greenstein describes. “Grease and sugar wafting from the takeout stands. Cigar smoke. Roasted peanuts.”
Greenstein, whose prior works include scripts for Rugrats, has crafted a story within a story. Walking the boards some 30 years later with his wife and teenage daughter for the first time, the story of Jason the Magnificent is told in full detail interrupted only briefly by quick glimpses of the 90’s version of Jason Benson, someone who is regarded as something less than magnificent by wife, daughter and employer alike. It is a tale of failed relationships. A story of fathers and sons and wives and daughters who didn’t talk about all the things they should have.
I really enjoyed Greenstein’s coming of age tales. There’s one about how to survive a bar mitzvah when the whole religion thing seems surrealistic. And there’s the first-time toke story, something that didn’t interest Jason until he got the evil of drugs brochure in school. Shortly thereafter he “made a pipe in the kitchen by wrapping a sheet of tinfoil around a pencil…like I’d seen a guy do in the movie Woodstock.” What generation of American teenagers can’t relate to that?
If you only know Atlantic City as a setting for gangster tales of the 20’s or as the modern day gambling resort in decline, Mr Boardwalk paints a different picture. It is about Atlantic City as a family resort and a popular summer vacation destination, particularly for eastern Pennsylvania beachgoers. Greenstein’s characters are bailing out just as the casinos are moving in. One of them, the guy from the marionette theater next door to the Benson family pretzel bakery, forewarned, “Everything’s going to change. They build a casino, nobody’s gonna be on the boardwalk no more. Ghost town, ghost boardwalk.”
Fast forward to today and you have what has been referred to as ‘Detroit with a boardwalk.’ The schemers who conceptualized an East Coast Las Vegas paid no heed to the fact that ultimately you can build casinos anywhere. And they have. But you can’t take an ocean and a beautiful sandy beach and plop it down in Philly, Yonkers or an Indian reservation in Connecticut.
This is a good novel. Reminds me that I haven’t been to Atlantic City in a long time either. With summer coming up I think a ride down the Parkway is in order.