Looking for the Jersey State Trooper a novel
By Nick Ingoglia
Looking for the Jersey State Trooper, a coming-of-age novel of about 91,000 words, is presented as a series of nine stories linked by common characters and themes. The main characters first appear as innocent 11- and 12-year-olds playing street games in Bayonne, New Jersey in the early ‘60s and reappear over the subsequent 25 years as they mature to adulthood.
Some stories are told as first person narratives while others are from a third person point of view, and the storytellers range in age from preteens to an 80+ year-old matriarch of one of the families. This approach gives the work intimacy at some points, allowing the reader to become emotionally engaged with the characters, and external perspective at others. The six main characters struggle to overcome issues of impoverished self-image, racial prejudice, street violence, and cultural stereotypes as they try to find fulfillment and love in their adult lives. Through their journey, they also must avoid the metaphorical, Jersey State Trooper who stalks them in the form of drugs, alcohol and other youthful excesses, any of which can destroy them.
But, these are not only ‘coming-of-age’ stories. They are also stories about wise elders of white European and black African ancestry, who, through their own ambition, struggle and search for meaning in their lives quietly mentor and inspire a younger generation to approach their lives with courage and hope.
The setting for this novel is urban and suburban New Jersey and the stories get much of their color, humor, and authenticity from these locales. But the themes and issues raised – racial conflict and intermarriage, intergenerational influences of progressive family members on youth as they seek their identities in a changing world, and the search for love and personal fulfillment at all ages – are universal and will resonate with a wide range of readers. This novel also spans generations and so will be of interest to multiple demographics – from young adults who will identify with the pop music and developmental struggles of the characters to older readers who will appreciate the role elders can play in the lives of the younger generation.
Below, is a chapter-by-chapter synopsis of the novel. Chapters ii, and iii have been revised as short story and can be found here and chapter vii is presented as a long-short story and can be found at long-short story.
Synopsis by chapters
i. Reunion (November 1987)
Eighty two year old Elisa is preparing to care for her one-year-old granddaughter, Julia, while her son, Frankie, and his friends celebrate the 25th anniversary of a “space shot” attempted by Lulu (the kid sister of one of Frankie’s friends). Elisa’s internal dialogue raises a mystery concerning the significance of Julia’s name and suggests that the subsequent lives of the carefree children who played street games in front of her window so many years earlier have been anything but carefree.
ii. Street Games (August 1961)
Frankie, Louis (cousin to Frankie), Walter, Alphonso, Jimmie, and Jimmie’s kid sister, Lulu, play in front of Frankie’s house on a hot night in August. The lives of these 11- and 12- year-olds as they pass from childhood to young adulthood is the subject of the remaining chapters.
iii. The Pinochle Players (August 1961)
When a storm cancels their outside games, Frankie leaves his friends to sit and watch his father and his Italian immigrant friends play their regular Tuesday night card game. While waiting for the fourth member of the group, Sal, an obstetrician who has been delayed by a lengthy delivery, they chat about medical issues of the day, engage in good-natured banter about their ethnic heritage, and tease Frankie’s mother, Elisa, about her Belgian roots. The event that delays Sal becomes clear by the end of the chapter, and its horror haunts Frankie for decades. The medical ethical issue underlying the event is raised here and again later in the book.
iv. Candyman (March 1964)
Walter is nicknamed Candyman for a lighthearted incident that occurred several years earlier. But, this seemingly jovial, happy young boy is hiding a terrifying secret. He is haunted by voices that won’t let him rest and scream for his destruction.
v. Gaetano’s Song (Spring 1966)
Louis loves basketball so passionately that he cuts school to go to the Waverly courts in Manhattan where he, Jimmie, and Alphonso challenge a group of menacing black guys from Harlem. Louis is facing an unsure future (manifested in part by his truancies), when he discovers that his Uncle Tom (whom he has viewed as a sad, listless, aging man who has spent fifty years working in a job he hated) is leading a clandestine life and has a secret passion. Tom’s secret is revealed, as Louis becomes friends with “Cat,” one of the black kids from Harlem. When Cat’s grandfather, the Reverend Rico, enters the picture, the four form an unlikely symbiotic union from which each learn lessons about fulfillment, passion, and life-goals, and Louis takes a giant step into adulthood.
vi. Papi (Winter 1977)
Frankie is a second year medical student when he meets his childhood friend, Alphonso, for a drink at The NoName Bar on the lower west side of Manhattan. There they spot a “hot” black girl who Alphonso realizes is Cat’s sister. Frankie begins a relationship with Mia and after some family, racial, and sexual “speed bumps,” they become lovers. Once they decide to live together, conflict arises around their racial differences and whether they will allow their union to proceed. Concurrently, Frankie faces a career decision dilemma of whether to pursue a life in clinical medicine or follow the example of one of his mentors to become a scientist. Through Frankie’s struggle, the reader gains an insider’s look at the exciting challenges of medical research but also the sometimes ugly side of academic life.
vii. Looking for the Jersey State Trooper (Summer 1980)
Alphonso narrates (into a tape recorder) an incredible event he witnessed involving the remarkable Lulu. He can’t believe it, but he knows what he saw. In telling this story, Alphonso recounts his life with (and without) Lulu, from her infamous space-shot attempt, to their subsequent meetings over more than a decade, to their night of exuberant rock n’ roll reckless, excesses when they encounter the ominous Jersey State Trooper.
viii. Ernest was a Dancer (November 1987)
It’s the night of the reunion, and Elisa is babysitting for her granddaughter, Julia, while Julia’s parents celebrate the 25th anniversary of the “space shot” with the rest of the gang from Bayonne. Elisa tells baby Julia how she and her people immigrated to this country from Belgium and how their hopes and dreams in the new land became centered on Julia, the first-born in America. Tragedy struck Julia and her parents as they were developing a business in Florida. But, Elisa courageously embraced the future, with the name, Julia, coming to symbolize the immigrant struggle and their hope for a better future. Elisa is compelled to tell their story to the baby as if she is trying to transfer the strength, courage and dreams from her generation to her one-year-old granddaughter. As a matter of fact, that’s exactly what she is doing.
ix. Reunion (November 1987)
This chapter is narrated by Mia (the reader learns that she and Frankie have married and that she is the mother of baby Julia, resolving an issue left open in chapter vi). They have returned home following the reunion to find Elisa and Julia asleep. Mia recounts the gathering earlier in the evening and reflects on the choices she and Frankie made to stay together, as well as their choices of career paths. Some of the earlier storylines of Louis, Cat, Alphonso, and, Jimmie are revisited to bring the reader up-to-date on their lives. In the final pages of the novel, Mia, who is awake while Frankie, baby Julia, and Elisa sleep soundly in another room, contemplates the next generation and what the future holds for their child.