Surviving Jersey: A Fan Letter
Dear Mr. Sanders,
I must admit: I’m fearful of flying. To get home without driving two full days, I must fly. During two recent flights to and from Florida and Indiana, I squeezed into the seat and tore through Surviving Jersey.
I can’t say what drew me in most. I treasured the experimentation with form in “My Father,” “The Code That Can’t Be Cracked,” and “House for Sale by Owner.” Or witty remarks, like this from “Where You Control the Action”: “Of course, because of safety regulations and our ever-growing litigious society, it will never be the same as the original. Which is probably a good thing, at least if the preservation of life is important to you.” Or the individuality of each piece which were connected together by themes of family relationships (particularly between fathers and sons), close encounters with danger, cultural aspects of regionalism, and rugged, unwavering love for kin.
On one flight, during landing, an elderly woman noticed my tightly gripped hands on the armrests, and leaned over, sharing: “I get nervous on airplanes too. All that shakiness! I trust my soul to the Lord.”
Your book entertains this very question: How the hell did we survive that?
In “The Second Person,” a hint towards understanding the genius of your narration: “There’s you—the physical you sitting on the bed—but then there’s that second you, floating above and watching the story unfold as Paul Stanley advises you to get up and move your feet.”
You give the characters such animation and vitality, but you also groom the narrator into an entrancing orator who provides much more than just language. This narrator also includes music, movement, suspense, twists, tone shifts, and comical asides.
There’s a moment when a storyteller transforms the body into visual representation: eyes wide or darting, hands stretched or clenched, arms spread or pointing, voice rumbling or soaring, a moment when the speaker, “that second you,” becomes something more than just the observer or reteller. Your essays’ narrators encapsulated this effect in many forms.
Sometimes, I imagined the storyteller as a man describing older generations to children at a family gathering, as in “My Father” and “My Grandmother, the Original Queen of Death Metal.”
At other points, I pictured the storyteller as a friend drinking beer and laughing heartily with other friends by a campfire, as in “Window to the Soul.” Oftentimes, I saw the storyteller grow serious, offering social commentary and discussing the changes between generations, such as in “Circus Prayer,” “Mountain Man,” “The Hookerman’s Backyard,” “The Code That Can’t Be Cracked,” “Steps,” and “Long Row to Hoe.”
Also present in your nonfiction is a certain kind of regionalism, of how we define ourselves by cities and states and the cultures attributed with them. I cherished that element in Surviving Jersey. That regionalism spoke to identity and the formative aspects of location, family, neighbors, and schoolmates.
I connected it with my views out the airplane windows, at the forests, highways, fields, towns, lakes, and mountains. The world below seemed miniature and unconnected from the height of clouds, but the regionalism of your nonfiction reminded me of roots, of how life on the ground amongst familiar faces ties our identities to amusement parks, rope swings over chilly rivers, porches of grandmothers, neighbors, car models, restaurants, house repairs, and chocolate factories.
After reading your incredible collection, I want to learn more about the expression of survival and endurance in writing. Surviving Jersey takes one of the most fundamental human endeavors, to survive the hazards of our world, and applies it to hardy characters, questionable man-made structures, risky decisions, and life-altering events. It’s magic goes beyond asking Where are we going? and reminds us to also wonder: How did we make it to here?