Jersey Shore journalismWritten by Michael Miller | Editor in Chief Emeritus | firstname.lastname@example.org
Eddie Bonneville, the protagonist in Gene Ritchings’ new novel, “Winter in a Summer Town,” is an authentic, vivid depiction of a modern journalist, even though his story takes place 40 years ago.
Only a journalist who has survived years of the field’s unkindest cuts could create a character like Bonneville, whose innocence is peeled away in aching layers as he navigates what he believes will be the story that makes his career. Ritchings fits that role — he was a New Jersey reporter from 1969-74 and currently edits and publishes nine weekly newspapers in Jersey’s Hudson County, managing news staff and supervising the development and editing of stories.
In “Winter in a Summer Town,” Bonneville, fresh out of high school and recovering from the violent end of his boxing career, bangs on a typewriter in a Jersey Shore newsroom, surrounded by career writers who view his enthusiasm with the weariness forged by a lifetime spent creating newspapers (those monuments to products that are blood, sweat and indispensable today, destined for the trash tomorrow).
Bonneville crusades to publish the tales of an old-school gangster, “Matty The Mule” Esposito, and Ritchings is merciless in using his main character to reveal the basest impulses and unfair gantlets young journalists must survive to practice their craft. It is rare to read a story that is simultaneously sentimental and clinically cold to its players, and Ritchings maintains a balance that is as bleak as it is inspiring.
The mechanics of the story weave threads from hard-boiled mysteries, clear-eyed love stories and torn-from-the-headlines crime tales with drifts of “The Sopranos” and a “Forrest Gump” touch with historical figures, but it is the implementation of journalism atmospherics that give the novel its soul.
Readers who have worked in journalism will recognize the slime that oozes around and threatens to drown Bonneville’s righteous fight; those who have never stepped inside a newsroom will have their preconceptions exploded — or confirmed — with often wrenching developments.
As Bonneville learns from Esposito, “Crime and politics are only two different ways of gettin’ the same thing. In fact, most of the time they are the same thing. Around here, you’re never done payin’ people off. County, local, doesn’t matter, there’s always somebody with his hand out. You want a liquor license? Fifty to a hundred grand. You need a zoning variance? Couple thousand split between board members. Make an inspector happy? Easy, twenty five to fifty dollars.”
Ritchings uses dialogue like that to impart his greatest insights; from the mouths of lowlifes come great truths.
Bonneville is put through paces in 1969 that young reporters still face. Anyone familiar with how journalism works in Toledo will recognize Eddie’s revelation: “The men that Eddie, as a young reporter, had interviewed so tremulously, impressed by their fancy government titles, and felt so lucky to rub shoulders with? How proud he’d been of himself, walking among the big shots!”
The story of reporters who cover VIPs and start to believe they are VIPs is a common one, from Toledo to Bonneville’s Jersey Shore. Ritchings is similarly blunt when spinning the webs of conflict that wrap around Bonneville’s commitment to truth, from his editor Frank to his closest family members: “He lands a story that lays bare forty years of organized crime and political corruption, and Frank isn’t impressed. But when the saloon where Frank drinks for free gets busted up, that gets his attention?”
A more experienced reporter in the story, Nick Poliandro, offers some sober advice to Bonneville.
“[Reporters] are always hearing things. Usually, somebody’s trying to use you and your newspaper to ruin somebody else. It’s all part of the political game, if you want to play it.”
In the same scene, Ritchings offers more insight into journalism than many textbooks even hint at.
“Journalism 101, man,’ [Nick said]. ‘In a story like this, for each thing Esposito claims, you need at least two more unrelated sources to corroborate it. Witnesses, documents, physical evidence. You need proof that’ll hold up in court if somebody sues the paper for libel.’
‘Sounds like an incredible amount of work,’ Eddie said, realizing both stories he’d written were inadequate and a long way from being ready for print, and he hadn’t even known it.
‘It’s tedious, it’s expensive, and it’s risky,’ Nick said. ‘Then once it’s published it’s a headache, because you’re under attack by people with real power to f**k you up. That’s one reason why so little of it gets done.’
“And in the end, is anybody really listening?’
‘I guess so,’ Nick said, ‘or we ought to be in another line of work’.”
Ritchings offers little solace and no promise of happy endings, for his fictional characters or his chosen field. In a book filled with memorable moments and resonating ideas, this passage should serve as a thunderclap for those invested in journalism — and that should be everyone who is invested in society, freedom and civil discourse.
Quoting President John F. Kennedy from a speech he made at Amherst College honoring Robert Frost, Ritchings writes, “The men who create power make an indispensable contribution to the nation’s greatness.
“But the men who question power, especially when the questioning is disinterested, make a contribution just as indispensable, for it is they who determine whether we use power, or power uses us.”
The important point, as Ritchings emphasizes, is that solitary word disinterested, which Ritchings defines as “the opposite of angry and selfish … Disinterested means instead of wasting time and energy on public tantrums, you apply it efficiently within the system to change what’s wrong. You do what’s effective, not what feels good, because in the final analysis it always comes down to who has the most votes.”
As one of Ritchings’ characters remarks, “It’s hard to imagine a president even talking about such things now.”
That observation is made in Ritchings’ fictional 1970, but it applies exponentially more in our modern era. The same can be said for Ritchings’ comments on journalism, politics and the often shady world where the two dance on the public’s expectations, entitlements and rights.
Ritchings has written a novel in which the story of a young man’s personal and professional coming of age is a mirror of its times, an oracle of its country’s future and a vivid tableau of our present.
“Winter in a Summer Town” is available for purchase at http://winterinasummertown.com/.
Michael S. Miller is editor in chief of Toledo Free Press and Toledo Free Press Star. Contact him at email@example.com.