When a 19 year-old reporter sat with a tape recorder on his knee on the porch of a seedy old Lakewood hotel, listening to an self-pitying organized crime associate pour out a tale of political corruption and betrayal, he had no idea the story would form the basis of a novel he would write over forty years later.
“He claimed the political organization he’d done business with for years had stabbed him in the back,” says Jersey City resident Gene Ritchings, “and he was trying to use me to get even, revealing every dirty deal he claimed he knew about or had been the bagman for.”
The recording died in his publisher’s office safe, never to be heard again, and the storyteller died years later in Witness Protection. Ritchings never got to write the story, or even find out how much of it was true.
But a good story is a good story. Transformed into fiction, the hoodlum’s confession and a journalist’s well-meaning but flawed effort to report it became the core of Ritchings’ new novel “Winter in a Summer Town.”
The book relates the coming of age of a young reporter and the loss of small-town innocence of the Jersey Shore itself, and takes the reader back to an era when news was written on typewriters in smoke-filled newsrooms.
“Throughout the 1960s, after the Parkway was completed, Ocean County was the fastest growing place in America,” Ritchings says. “The local political scene, dominated by an all-powerful Republican political machine, was awash in cash, and developers were kings.”
At the same time, headlines in the Newark newspapers revealed the influence that Mafiosi like Simone “Sam The Plumber” Decavalcante and Angelo “Gyp” DeCarlo had on politics in New Jersey, exposed in secret FBI wiretap transcripts filed as evidence in the mobster’s federal extortion trials.
It was also a time of rapid social, cultural and political change in America itself. As the novel explores the loss of innocence of its characters, it reflects a generation’s disillusionment, falling from the high hopes of the Civil Rights and anti-war movements to the violence perpetrated by the Black Panthers and Weather Underground, inciting a conservative backlash that can still be felt today.
“Winter in a Summer Town” weaves all these elements together as rookie reporter Eddie Bonneville stumbles onto what he thinks is a career-making story when he interviews Matthew “Matty The Mule” Esposito, the Shore rackets boss.
“Eddie is seduced by a story that fits his assumptions about the world,” Ritchings says, “a common pitfall for journalists. The story, and why he’s drawn to it, is much bigger than his ability to comprehend. He tries to write the story he believes, not what’s real.”
But Eddie’s naivete and ambition soon thrust him into a life and death struggle with the dark forces he has unwisely antagonized.
Ritchings, the Reporter’s managing editor, describes the novel as a kind of John Grisham story about the education and painful maturation of an idealistic young man, but centered on journalism rather than the legal profession.
From youth to manhood
The novel also explores Eddie’s youthful character. His journey through his hometown’s underworld forces him to try to make sense of his own inner world, even as he confronts the looming threat of the military draft, the frustration of a dream of America gone wrong, his angry relationship with his own father, the mystery of his emerging sexual maturity, and the violence he discovers in his male nature.
Opening with a brutal, life-changing scene in his high school boxing ring, the reader experiences the fury of a young man typical of a generation that refused to trust anyone over thirty, especially older men in authority.
After nearly killing his opponent, Eddie commits to pacifism at a time when the military is drafting young men to send to Vietnam. His ex-girlfriend Ivy Porter, the free-spirited daughter of a state Senator, is a girl whose sexual promiscuity and mysterious soulfulness trap him in a maze of conflicting emotions. Ivy is also torn, between her need for Eddie, her high school sweetheart, and her compulsive attraction to a Weather Underground-like radical who believes political violence is the only way to protest the war.
“Eddie and Ivy are both characters running from romantic situations out of control,” Ritchings says. “Eddie has tried for months to forget about a girl he can’t live with or without, but when she comes home from college for Christmas hoping to escape her radical comrades, he is powerless to resist.”
The novel’s climax leaves both Eddie and Ivy changed forever in ways the young lovers could have never foreseen.
Ritchings says he is particularly interested to see if women will find Eddie a sympathetic character.
“He’s not like a lot of brutal young men,” he says. “Eddie becomes conscious of his own capacity for causing destruction, and he makes a decision to take responsibility for it and stop acting out on others. I think he is a better man at the end of the book.”
Ritchings drew on many of his own experiences for this fictional account.
“In some ways, this novel is what might have happened if I had tried to publish the story I was given,” he says. “I wasn’t as idealistic or naïve as Eddie. But years later, after I’d experienced the Men’s Movement and Robert Bly’s ideas about mature masculinity and began to work on my own anger and buried violence, I wanted to tell a story that combined ideas about male naivete and the natural brutality of men, as well as what happened to my generation. I began to wonder ‘What if…’ and this story began to form.”
People and places of the real Jersey Shore
The novel – which bears no resemblance to TV versions of the region – is filled with the places and people of the Jersey Shore, like the legendary Upstage Club where the Asbury Park music scene was born, the original Inkwell coffee house in Long Branch, the boardwalks of Point Pleasant and Seaside Heights, and a mob graveyard in a Jackson Township chicken farm. The reader meets cynical politicians, gangsters, hard-working journalists, and even the denizens of the Pine Barrens.
The author was born in Point Pleasant and attended schools in Lakewood and Brick Township. As a reporter for the Ocean County Daily Observer and Asbury Park Evening Press, he came to know the Shore and saw more of New Jersey’s highways and back streets as a truck driver and roadie for the famed Jersey bar band HOLME. Later he worked for almost 25 years in film and television production in New York, lastly for 14 seasons as a production coordinator on the original “Law & Order,” where he co-wrote the season five finale “Pride” with Ed Zuckerman.
“Winter in A Summer Town” is available as a trade paperback and Kindle ebook. To learn more, visit the website, www.winterinasummertown.com.
Al Sullivan may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.