I had the pleasure, not long ago, of reading an advance copy of PALISADES PARK, by Alan Brennert. The novel will be coming out from St. Martin’s Press next April, and I recommend it highly.
Let me say up front that I’m a big Brennert fan. I have been since I first saw his work in issues of THE BRAVE AND THE BOLD from DC Comics, teaming Batman with other DC heroes. Brennert didn’t tell straightforward adventure stories, he told character stories—of teen heroes Hawk & Dove as maturing adults, thinking back on what their lives had been, of the courtship and marriage of the Batman and Catwoman of DC’s Golden Age, of the repercussions of Batman’s efforts to save the young Bruce Wayne of an alternate timeline from the same tragedy that had haunted and shaped Batman’s life. And whatever else Brennert wrote, whether it was TV series like L.A. LAW or novels like KINDRED SPIRITS, a romance between two disembodied spirits discovering on the verge of death that life is perhaps worth living after all, I sought out his work and couldn’t get enough of it. Everything he writes is imaginative and human, creating richly textured worlds full of engaging, believable characters that don’t so much suck the reader in as welcome him in, enveloping him in story for as long as it takes.
And then, a couple of books back, he took what felt like a quantum leap forward, abandoning the fantasy of his previous work for history, in MOLOKA’I, which I can only describe as the most positive, uplifting, heartwarming novel about decades of life in a leper colony that you’ll ever read. As with all of Brennert’s work, it found a great depth of humanity in its characters, but it did so in a world so outwardly horrific and unsettling that the impact of the book was all the richer for it, mixing tragedy, sweetness, endurance, emotion and hope into a powerful and compelling story. Much as I like fantasy, and much as I liked what Brennert had done before, MOLOKA’I showed that historical fiction was what he should be doing, ushering us into worlds and times that we simply could never see or experience in any other way.
So like I said, big fan, and very much primed for PALISADES PARK, a historical novel about a family’s experiences across the decades as they live and work in and around the New Jersey amusement park, a story of dreamers bruised (but not crushed) by reality that runs from the Great Depression to the turbulent Sixties. And the book doesn’t disappoint.
I actually lived in Cliffside Park for a few years in the 1980s (and my friends Richard Howell and Carol Kalish lived in neighboring Edgewater for a while), so I knew the area, but I never had any real idea where Palisades Park had been. Turns out I’ve walked through what used to be the park grounds, and there’s no sign of it left, not that I ever saw. But the book brings it all to life again in a warm, engaging and memorable way, weaving in and out of history and giving us a human perspective on its existence. And the characters, of course, are wonderful. It’s romantic, it’s tragic, it’s dramatic, heartbreaking, thrilling…I may never have seen Palisade Park itself, beyond the ads that used to run in comic books in the 1960s, but I feel like I’ve been there now, and seen what it was. And not from the outside, like a customer, but from the inside, through the eyes of the people who made it all happen.
I don’t want to say much about Eddie Stopka and his family, whose lives grow and shape themselves around a French-fry concession stand in the park, because I don’t want to spoil anything. But I’ll say that their lives are messy and complicated and unpredictable—and through all that, all of them strive for and realize dreams. Maybe not the dreams they started out with (though at least one of the Stopkas manages that), but even when they lose dreams, they find new ones. Not simple ones, and they’re not easily attained, but that’s life. The struggle is what makes the journey worth taking.
To digress a bit—years ago, I was asked to write a FINAL FANTASY mini-series for Disney Comics. I outlined a story I wanted to write, based on the game and the supporting materials they gave me, and they liked it a lot, but had one problem: They were working on FINAL FANTASY 2 (yeah, it was that long ago), and now wanted the comic to reflect that game instead of the first one. So they paid me a kill fee for the first outline and sent me the stuff I’d need to work on the second. But I couldn’t use any of the story I’d come up with for the first one, because the characters in the first game, while fantasy adventurers, were the fantasyverse version of ordinary schmoes—a soldier, a bard, a thief, that sort of thing—and in the new one they were princes and generals and royal inventors and such. They were the guys who prosecute the wars, who controlled and won or lost the fate of nations, while the earlier guys were the guys who endured the war, who survived it and their little part of it as well as possible. Having to switch from one to the other made me realize that my sympathy is always with the little guy—that I love TERRY AND THE PIRATES in part because the leads are, in the final analysis, nobodies who can’t affect the sweep of the war and of history (other than in small and fictional ways), they can only endure and survive. We don’t see what they do to history so much as what history does to them. And we care about what they do for themselves, who they become, how they triump—it’s personal, not geopolitical.
That’s what I love about PALISADES PARK, too (and MOLOKA’I, and Brennert’s other historical, HONOLULU). The Stopkas aren’t movers and shakers, they’re not titans of industry or larger-than-life super-soldiers or anything like that. They’re resolutely life-sized, and all the better for it. They don’t bring down the corrupt sheriff or stop the fire or create the park or close it. We read about them because history shapes them, and they react to history. They don’t steer it—aside from by being part of the mass of the population that brings about change—they experience it. And that makes history (and the Stopkas) come alive in a way that we can grasp more readily, on the same level we experience our own lives, full of struggle and compromise and discovery and the little triumphs that make it all worthwhile.
Brennert’s comics (and particularly the Batman/Hawk & Dove issue) were some of the first that made me realize comics could be more than adventure stories, that even the familiar characters right in front of me could break the “rules” and go be extraordinary in different ways, and started me heading toward what became MARVELS and ASTRO CITY—stories, by and large, of characters who experience and endure their own fictional version of history, doing their best to realize their dreams along the way. I’m thrilled that he’s still telling stories about people stumbling along, living life, pursuing dreams, not beating the villains so much as illuminating what it’s like to be human and to strive. I’m glad I get to keep reading them, and glad I got to read this one early.
And now I get to be frustrated that this one’s not even out yet and I already want the next one.
Anyway. Another winner, and highly recommended by me. According to the back of the advance reader’s copy, St. Martin’s is giving it a first printing of 100,000 copies, a major marketing campaign and a national tour, and it’s well worthy of the big push.
Check it out, when it hits. And if you haven’t read any of Brennert’s work before, check out his other books while you’re waiting. You won’t be disappointed.