About 30 years ago, Jill Eisenstadt joined her Bennington College classmates Donna Tartt and Bret Easton Ellis with a debut novel that established her place in the literary “brat pack” — a group that also included writers Jay McInerney and Tama Janowitz. At the time, there was quite a backlash against the young novelists, thought to be more interested in partying than in serious literature.
In Eisenstadt’s case, critics seemed to be confusing the author with her characters. Recently reissued, “From Rockaway” (Lee Boudreaux/Back Bay Books, 263 pp., $15.99 paper) follows a group of teenage lifeguards named Timmy, Peg, Chowderhead and Sloane. The aimlessness of their lives is broken up by a series of tribal rituals — moving from the prom to the Death Keg to a meeting of the Brass Balls Bridge Jumpers Association — and by a tragedy at the beach for which Timmy is apparently responsible.
The novel is like a stoppered bottle holding the essence of 1980s youth culture — a decoction of boredom, yearning, recklessness and low-grade marijuana. Eisenstadt grounds the adolescent head trips in their essential physicality, from the first scene — “In the backseat, a pile. Limbs and hair, smushed corsages, empty, rattling champagne bottles, and pot seeds” — to a shot of the guards at a drunken beach party near the end of the book, jumping off a trailer into the sand. “Their bodies are perfect, tan, with smooth swimmers’ muscles. . . . Like carved from some rare wood, not an excess piece anywhere.”
In her new novel, “Swell” (Lee Boudreaux/Back Bay Books, 264 pp., $26), Eisenstadt comes back to Rockaway, and this visit revolves around historical events of recent decades.
Her first stop is an opening scene set on June 6, 1993 — the date the Golden Venture cargo ship ran aground on Rockaway Beach, spilling 286 Chinese immigrants entering the country illegally into the water and onto the shore. One of them struggles to the home of 81-year-old Rose Impoliteri, who believes her tyrannical son Gary is just waiting for her to die so he can get her house. Gary orders Rose to retrieve the gun hidden in his closet to protect herself until he arrives. Once he shows up, she shoots him — then puts the gun in the hand of the Chinese man who has died beside her.
The remainder of the book jumps ahead to a weekend in June 2002 after both 9/11 and the crash of American Airlines Flight 587; both events deeply scarred this Queens neighborhood. Most of the old crew had become firefighters and cops; Chowderhead died at the World Trade Center. Tim has only half a nose and is eight months sober. Tormented not just by the recent tragedies, but also his old lifeguarding mistake and his divorce, he has given up firefighting to become a driver’s ed teacher. He is sleeping with Chowderhead’s widow, his old friend Peg.
The Murder House, as the old Impoliteri place is known, has gotten new inhabitants — the Glassman family, moving out to Rockaway from a TriBeCa apartment near Ground Zero. The house is a gift from grandfather Sy Glassman, who bought it for them on the condition that a) his very pregnant daughter-in-law Sue convert to Judaism, and b) they let him move in with them. Sue is more enthused about the former than the latter; her conversion party, which will also be a housewarming, is scheduled for Sunday.
And then the doorbell rings. Outside is “a curvy Indian beauty swathed in lemony silk” pushing in a wheelchair an elderly woman with a “mustached smirk and a puff of no-color hair”: Rose Impoliteri, now 90, and her minder, Bibi. Though the Glassmans were told that Rose was “lingering” in a nursing home in Forest Hills, she is here to announce that the sale is illegal and she’s not leaving.
To try and explain the complications that ensue would be folly. Just look at the size of the cast: Glassman père, mère, teenage daughter June, 5-year-old Sage and her imaginary friend; Tim and Peg; the neighbors on the other side, the Mole-Kacys; Rose and Bibi. Almost everyone from “From Rockaway” gets to make at least an appearance.
Despite the overcrowding and the kookiness of the plot, “Swell” is anchored in real understanding of the people of Rockaway, what they went through in those years and their recourse to black humor. Rose’s favorite joke:
“You said you’d never forget.”
Indeed, Eisenstadt has not.