When Tito Loved Clara

No one could argue that the Garden State doesn't command its healthy share of literature. From William Carlos Williams's terse dispatches on Paterson to Leroi Jones's ragged rages to Philip Roth's rosy 1950s Newark to Judy Blume's Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret, that zig-zag outcrop, an afterthought between the mid-Atlantic and New England, wields in literature the same outsized power it does in life—a crucial density that belies its actual size.

 

But if Jersey has its rightful place, it doesn't mean it gets righteous treatment. Like the one-liners that plague weary residents—"New Joisey?" "Which exit?"—the state, thematically speaking, is hopelessly circumscribed. Sam Lipsyte's losers hole up in childhood bedrooms; Tom Perotta's freshmen, now in college, gloom about hometown mistakes; chick-lit mothers dream of escape. (TV dwells gustily on the region's putative violence: Tony Soprano making hits in his tinted SUV; double-muscled, punch-happy "Jersey Shore"-ers; "Real Housewives" who pull out each other's extensions and flip tables on a dime.)

 

Not so in Jon Michaud's When Tito Loved Clara, in which the Jersey suburbs wink like a green light across the Hudson to second-generation Dominicans in Inwood whose parents brought them over from Santo Domingo, to dubious benefit, twenty years ago. Now, marooned on one side of the river or the other, they're constantly drawn back and forth across a rumbling George Washington Bridge, as if Inwood's Seaman Avenue and Bergen County's Oradell maintained a collegial tug-of-war.

 

When we meet Clara Lugo, she's on one such journey, headed across the bridge to pick up her niece, Deysei, who'll complete high school in the genteel New Jersey town of Millwood. Next, Clara will deposit her "ghetto-fabulous" half-sister Yunis at Newark Airport, en route to Santo Domingo to live with their mother.

 

This practical rearrangement becomes a more potent triangle when Yunis reveals that Deysei is pregnant (a slight complication for Clara's college plans for the girl) and then, when, dropping Yunis off at Newark Airport, Clara catches site of Tito, her partner in a brief, furtive high school love affair. Like Clara and her white husband Thomas, Tito seems to have a young mixed-race son. But what Clara doesn't know is that, although Tito's life seems a mirror of her own (children! Miscegenation! Newark Airport!), he's never moved out of his parents' basement apartment, and he's never moved on from Clara. Ironically, he's a mover, but the only passages he takes between NJ and Inwood are to deposit others into lives he covets.

 

The book, at this point, seems poised for a return to the rosy-hued days of their romance—maybe even a crack at it in the present. But Michaud has far bigger fish to fry: not only the evolution of Tito and Clara and their respective families after their emigration from the Dominican Republic, but the evolution of the entire tri-state area, whose real estate price fluctuations have their corresponding effects on the region's psychic geography.

 

Distances that would seem meaningless to an outsider—Oradell is only a few miles from Inwood Hill Park, after all—are full of significance to residents. When Thomas expresses a "passing interest" in moving to Inwood, "among the mulattoes, the remains of the Irish and Jewish communities of the last century, to be one of the newly arrived middle-class couples who'd been priced out of Brooklyn and Astoria," Clara responds, '"Why did I go to college?... Just so I could live down the street from all the dumbass immigrants I grew up with? I don't think so.'"

 

We're used to seeing such picaresque depictions of culture clashes from the point of view of the charming outsider (Paul Auster, I'm looking at you), or the beleaguered inhabitant, who watches time march past (or over) his old bodega. But where Michaud differs is in his far more precise (and correct, for the record) depiction of the straddling of cultures by both kinds of inhabitants: the residents who've brought the farmer's market to Inwood and the Dominicans who've brought moro to Oradell. Witness Tito, stalking Clara in Millwood, glancing around a coffeeshop:

A crossing guard, a man in his late sixties, probably a retired police officer, blew on the steam from a cup of coffee while he read the high-school sports section of the Star-Ledger. A couple of mothers sat with their toddlers, whose faces were smeared with cream cheese. One mother was black and the other was white, but they both had kids with light brown skin. Maybe the white mother was actually a nanny? He couldn't tell. That's the kind of place it was.

 

As it happens, the simple event that brings Tito and Clara back into each other's orbit—their old teacher's move from Oradell back to the old neighborhood—could seem soap-operatic if it weren't the point. In such close quarters, Michaud is saying, it's easy—even inevitable—for one small shift to bring two folks long separated back to the same geography.

 

And that geography may be coming back into style, as recent novels by Meg Wolitzer and Francine Prose seem to suggest. Still, Michaud's pitch-perfect depiction of NJ is singular, if only for the fact that it refuses to let its characters ever rest there in peace. First generation children, Michaud knows, always have the hard choice of staying with their parents or forging their new families alone. Clara chooses the former, Tito eventually chooses the latter, and still, neither winds up where she or he planned. Go ahead, make a new life, Michaud is saying. But there's no way to move without breaking, losing, and leaving something behind.


Lizzie Skurnick is the author of Shelf Discovery, a memoir of teen reading. She lives in Jersey City, NJ.

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