Louis Greenstein’s debut novel, Mr. Boardwalk (New Door Books), captures an essential Philadelphia experience—going down the shore. Day trips and long weekends in Atlantic City are a large part of the city’s identity, and while this novel will conjure up any local’s finest memories of walking along the boards with a funnel cake, Greenstein goes beyond the summer phenomenon and delves deep into an essential turning point in Atlantic City’s history.
The novel begins with a middle aged Jason Benson walking down the boardwalk with his wife and daughter in the present day, telling them about his teenage years in Atlantic City. This frames the main narrative: flashbacks of Jason’s summers on the Atlantic City boardwalk, working at his father’s soft pretzel factory, and also learning to juggle and becoming a successful street performer. We learn about Jason’s love of performing, his financial success from it, and how it affects his relationships as a high schooler.
Mr. Boardwalk’s central concern, however, is Jason’s love for Atlantic City in the mid-70s, and his nostalgia for it in the present day. Jason’s teenage years down the shore were those immediately preceding legalized gambling, when Atlantic city wasn’t exactly a more innocent place (Greenstein deals honestly with the drug and sex culture of the era), but a more honest one. Before the huge casinos with faux themes and the false hope of winning big, the city was full of local seasonal businesses which, in the novel, seem to act more like family than competitors.
Greenstein brings us vividly back to that time, while also reminding us that it was not without its consequences on the individuals who lived it, and that nostalgia can have a bit of a dark side as well. Through the novel, Jason’s love of Atlantic City begins to border on an obsession, which affects not only his life in the 70s, but also his adult life. This connection between the two narratives is one one of the real strengths of the novel, and leads to a tight, satisfying ending.
I read this book in front of a fire in the middle of winter, and it gave me visions of my own trips down to the boardwalk, but also an insight into the Atlantic City before my time. Now that the weather is turning, I think it’ll make anyone ready for a trip down the shore.
Joshua Isard is the director of Arcadia University’s MFA Program in Creative Writing, and the author of the novel Conquistador of the Useless. You can find him at his home page, or on Twitter.