Greetings from Asbury Park
(Blackstone Publishing , 2022)
There is no shortage of ideas in Greetings from Asbury Park, the debut novel by Daniel H. Turtel. In under 250 pages, Turtel contends with the ways children are haunted by their parents in both life and death, the anxieties of legitimacy, the fragile but tight strands of connection that hold communities together, the echoing effects of emotional trauma and the impossibility of escaping from memory, the ongoing frustration of racism and homophobia’s existence into our present, and the taboos of incest. As I read this ambitious work, I couldn’t help but feel Turtel attempting to channel Sherwood Anderson’s short story cycle Winesburg, Ohio. (This comparison is so apparent, in fact, that it’s written on the back cover of the novel.) But whereas Anderson’s stories in Winesburg, Ohio lay bare the frailties and failings that make us human, Greetings from Asbury Park at times falls short and obscures them.
Casey Larkin is the main character of this novel, which opens in a New Jersey sea-side town with the funeral of his father, a wealthy man named Joseph toward whom every resident seems to hold a set of ambivalent feelings. Casey’s half-brother Davey, the son of Joseph’s ex-wife, is bequeathed most of his father’s estate with the exception of $50,000 and one house in Asbury, which goes to Casey, who we learn early on is the son of Joseph’s former mistress. What seems at first to be a story about unequal inheritance, however, is complicated when Casey discovers that he has a second half-sibling, Gabrielle, a bi-racial woman who lives in this house with her mother Tamera, a former maid of Joseph’s. The plot is then further complicated by the romance that develops between Casey and Gabrielle, and their eventual coupling.
Greetings progresses through its plot points in such a way that makes me believe Turtel meant this novel to be a meditation on how the paths from childhood to adulthood must always wind their ways through the complexities of longing, desire, and belonging that are made manifest in the relationships we either attempt to build, or ignore building. However, the emotional reality of these relationships, especially Casey and Gabrielle’s incestuous one, are never realized on the page in a way that feels true to the inner lives of the characters. Casey and Gabrielle meet, engage in witty repartee, share a tender moment of fond remembrance over their father’s taste in music, hang out together at a couple of Gabrielle’s gigs, and are then suddenly bedding each other—all as if Turtel is asking us to fill in the integral gaps in the pair’s amour. In lieu of chancing these investigations of the interior, Turtel often pivots to new storylines, or conjures conflict where there should be none, instead of contending with the elephant in the room.
Incest is not a light topic. By way of example, in Max Frisch’s Homo Faber, Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things, and Haruki Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore, the acts are handled with a level of deep introspection by the authors and characters. Sabeth becomes a stand-in for Walter’s regret; Estha and Rahel’s affair is not one of shared joy, but of grief; and Kafka’s journey brings to mind the curse of Oedipus. And yet, in Greetings, while we get a sense that the act is taboo via admonishments from both Davey and Casey’s childhood friend Meredith, it is ultimately paid little thought by Casey and the narrative. Turtel doesn’t ignore the act and the relationship, but neither does he perform a deep dive into them. The closest we come to a resolution is when toward the end of the novel Davey—who, in all fairness, is depicted as a sad buffoon whose opinion we probably shouldn’t put much stock in—tells Casey, “A hundred years ago, they wouldn’t let whites and Blacks get married. Now they’re even allowing gays to do it. Maybe in fifty years it’ll be alright to do what you’re doing.”
But this reluctance to engage with the unseemly or difficult—for Greetings to truly lay bare its characters—extends beyond this one plot point.
Within the novel’s first few pages Casey’s actions characterize him as aloof and deflecting. Neither he nor Davey can acknowledge their sense of grief, anger, or loss at their father’s death. Instead, Casey and Davey joke about drinking heavily and picking up women, and then drink heavily and pick up two women. Casey first describes Lena, the woman with whom he spends the night, as homely until he drinks more. In the morning, Casey will accidentally burn Lena’s countertop while cooking eggs and then leave before she wakes.
As a reader, I hoped Casey’s aloofness was a reaction to his father’s death, and that the real Casey would eventually come into view. However, Turtel creates a character who largely remains emotionally unavailable to his family, friends, and even himself throughout the whole of the novel. Despite this, Casey is the character every woman in the novel wants to sleep with, the one depicted as the better of the two brothers (mostly because the older brother Davey is an alcoholic and drug addict), and the one who, in his indifference, has the privilege of never finding himself in a situation where he risks emotional ruin. In the end, Casey inherits his father’s fortune after Davey dies from an overdose. And, he even finds a potential wife in his friend Meredith, whom he spends much of the novel unintentionally gaslighting.
The narrative is aware of Casey’s aloofness as evidence of Davey proclaiming, during the conversation in which Casey comes clean about his affair with his Gabrielle, that to Casey he and Meredith are like “little moons”—presumably orbiting Casey. And even Casey’s narration is laden with overtures to aloofness, such as when viewing the body of Meredith’s deceased mother and certainly projecting:
You could not call her expression a smile. It seemed simply to be there as a feature of something incapable of emotion, like a strange pattern that might manifest in the bark of a tree. It was not a smile but it was an expression of contentedness, nonetheless. I was suddenly envious of her.
These overtures, however, read to me more like Turtel attempting to accommodate the lack of character development by commenting on it before we can criticize it.
In comparison, we might think back to George Willard, Casey’s analog in Winesburg, Ohio. George is flawed and immature when we meet him—much more so than Casey, in fact. But it is in George’s learning to see his fellow townsfolk as the complete and heartbreaking human beings they are that he becomes ready at the cycle’s conclusion to see the larger world. In Casey Larkin, we are instead presented with a young man who we can’t help but get the sense the author believes the supernumerary exists for the sole purpose of throwing his character into relief.
It's a shame really, because Turtel has the ability to continually peel away the unending layers of characters’ interiors to show how our memories and our histories not only make us, but, collectively, make the social world. In the most successful chapter of the novel—which also happens to be the titular one—we find ourselves with Gabrielle and her band in a practice session. The band’s pianist plays Beethoven’s “Piano Sonata No. 8,” which triggers memories of his father’s struggles as a Black man almost fifty years prior. The melody, a call to memory itself, then sparks a deep meditation from Gabrielle on the many hats she must wear in the small racist town in which she lives, along with “all these unlived memories that attached themselves to strange unintuitive things, like the color of your skin, or the last name of your father.” The sonata finally enchants Liam, the band’s drummer who is in love with Gabrielle, thrusting him into a memory of the compromise made when spreading his own father’s ashes in the ocean. For lack of means, Liam’s mother could not spread them from a plane in the air, as was his father’s wish.
It is in these pages that Turtel hits his stride, and we can catch a glimpse at what this novel wanted to be. But these moments are few and far between. And in truth, even this moment feels out of place for a novel that, up until this chapter, has not spent any time in the heads and hearts of most of these characters in most of these ways.
From here to the novel’s conclusion, it’s as if Turtel replaces any sense of the inevitable with melodramatic scenes that could be resolved if characters could sit down and have an adult conversation with one another. Such as the moment in Chapter 12 (of 16) when Casey and Davey finally tempt broaching the subject of the unfair split of their father’s inheritance, only to have Casey grab his bag and head back home to New York immediately after. Much else is filled in by a convolution of story lines that read like early drafts for a collection: the dress shop owner’s madeleine moment when she touches a decades-old pair of sandals that used to belong to a young man who died in war; the runner’s revenge plot against Davey for sleeping with his sister, which is introduced in the second to last chapter of the book; the aforementioned Lena who intervenes on this murder plot by sleeping with the runner; and more. (I would gladly read that collection.)
Yes, Greetings from Asbury Park is an uneven novel, but I don’t believe it is a work that reflects poorly on the writer. Perhaps this is the novel Turtel needed to get out of his system before moving on to other projects. Through Casey, he contends with what it takes of a person to be a successor, a sibling, a lover, a caretaker, a friend, a community member, an ally, knowing that we will stumble in these roles time and again. But we may choose to honor our failings to one another, to forgive ourselves for being less than perfect. “Nothing a human ever does is inhuman,” Casey tells Meredith, who could not cry at her mother’s funeral toward the novel’s close. “We are human, aren’t we?” If nothing else, we are that.