Rosendalians and visitors to the town mostly know Mark Morganstern as the music-booking half of the husband-and-wife team who has run the Rosendale Café since the early 1990s. It’s an appealing, airy-but-funky space in which to have a vegetarian meal, sample microbrews and/or listen to a performer who seems far too prestigious to bother with a venue in such a dinky upstate town. Musicians like to play the place, and people in general like to hang out there.
The atmosphere is casual and welcoming. Even non-veggies can be cheerfully accommodated, sans sustainability-purist snobbery.
But the affable Morganstern has a secret identity: Besides being a bass player and a substitute teacher, he also has a master’s degree in creative writing and a passion for literature. His short story collection, Dancing with Dasein, was published by Burrito Books in 2015.
And now, with no bands to schedule during the Covid 19 shutdown, he has taken the leap of finishing his novel, The Joppenbergh Jump, available in print-on-demand format from Recital Publishing. He’d better hope that it doesn’t become a best-seller, or his neighbors are going to be mad at him for all the literary tourists it could bring to town, crawling all over the titular mountain looking for mysterious stone faces or hidden treasure.
Joppenbergh, for those who don’t know, is the name of the dolostone crag that looms behind the shops lining the north side of Main Street (Route 213) in downtown Rosendale. Named for Jacobus Rutsen, the town’s founder, the mountain has a storied history, including a cement mine collapse in 1899 that failed to kill 150 miners because they happened to be out in the sunshine on their lunch hour, and an Olympic-grade ski jump that was intermittently active from 1937 to the early 1970s (https://hudsonvalleyone.com/2019/01/24/ski-jumping-over-downtown-rosendale-a-history). Nowadays it’s a popular place to hike.
For Coot Friedman, the protagonist of Morganstern’s new novel, the Joppenbergh is a mystical place in which he seeks solace whenever he’s afflicted by nightmares and delusions brought on by his PTSD from serving in the Army in Iraq and Afghanistan – or by the crazier denizens of his beloved hometown, which goes pointedly unnamed but is clearly Rosendale. Coot describes himself as “a sharpshooter, ex-deer hunter, mushroom forager, wildlife guide, survivor of a previous wild life; handyman, poet, friend to all who befriend me, and ghost talker,” as well as a “borderline alcoholic.”
Narratively, The Joppenbergh Jump is something of a rambling tale, sporting a succession of dramatic climaxes that could each provide a satisfying book in itself. But the reader gets hooked in right from the get-go, as the author successfully establishes Coot’s distinctive voice. Imagine a slightly mad, fundamentally good-hearted vet with a propensity for messing up his life and the wry, observant, world-weary humor of a detective from a Forties noir novel and you’ll get the general tone. But unlike one of those down-at-heels gumshoes, our hero is more trail-smart than street-smart.
“I’m going to tell you the truth about war, friendship, and love,” Coot tells the reader in the prologue. “I’m going to tell you everything that happened in this way unique place I live in, and the people. People of every weird cut and wild curl you could imagine. I’m going to tell you about how I came back home, fucked up from war, and how my best friends, a pharmacist, a ghost, and a sacred mountain, saved my ass so many times I lost track. And how I got handed a 14-karat life the chances of me ever having were minus nil.” And that’s just what Morganstern delivers, at a page-turning pace.
What makes The Joppenbergh Jump special is the confident way the author establishes and explores a liminal realm where hallucination overlaps magical realism. Each one of Coot’s adventures gets a little stranger, even as he becomes more grounded through the energy he devotes to his human connections. His wartime PTSD, the aftereffects of a brain injury and overindulgence in beer cause him to have “episodes” in which unreal, metaphorical characters talk to him. But he also can see and interact with ghosts – notably a onetime ski jumper named Kurt – and it’s quite clear from the practical consequences of their advice that these are not delusions. They’re the metaphysical baggage that comes of living in a place with a whole lot of history.
The Joppenbergh Jump blesses us with a vivid portrait of a quirky Northeastern hamlet, “a small town inside of a town like an egg yolk inside of an egg,” populated by a cast of characters who spring to life with a few deft brushstrokes. Some are over-the-top awful people, others the loyal friends you’ll wish you had, a few downright crazy enough to make Coot seem Mr. Normal. While many are fanciful, composites or throwbacks to decades past, Rosendalians will recognize some of the locals instantly.
A few of these come off well: “Beaming Dove, a diminutive powerhouse … in her marching whites,” leader of the Shad Town Improvement Brass Band and Social Club, can be inspired by none other than drumming guru and community sparkplug Fre Atlast. The Senatorial Puppet Bazaar clearly represents an exaggerated version of Redwing Blackbird Theater. Morganstern tweaks his own family business with a description of a health-food restaurant grand opening that features a mosh pit of puréed vegetables in the back yard. But there’s at least one notoriously grumpy local merchant who will be enraged by his villainous depiction, if he ever reads this book. (He probably won’t.)
Identifying which Main Streeter, past or present, is which will supply extra fun for local readers. But the sense of place evoked in The Joppenbergh Jump has a life of its own that should translate well anywhere – in the same way that Joyce’s Dublin, Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County or García Marquez’s Macondo resonate for audiences worldwide. Though there’s an element of New Netherland Gothic in Morganstern’s mythos, à la Washington Irving, strands of histories both much older and much more recent are woven in as well. The whole package makes Rosendale, New York a place that more people will want to visit, to soak up the vibe.
Some locals may find that a little scary. Others will welcome the tourism dollars. Most Rosendalians and other locals, I think, will be amused by the author’s depiction of the self-proclaimed “festival town” as a place that routinely holds a parade for National Yo-Yo Day. Coot himself has a low opinion of the recent influx of Brooklyn hipsters and gentrification. “Back in the hamlet we can’t afford pretense, airs, or attitude,” he says, comparing his town favorably with Woodstock. “Tourists are not in awe of us; they walk around like they’re at a game farm.” (Seriously, who wouldn’t want to share a beer with this guy, in some laid-back downtown watering hole?) Let’s hope that The Joppenbergh Jump makes its way into the hands of just the right number of readers, from near and far. I recommend starting with yourself.
The book, 320 pages in trade paperback format, costs $15 and can be ordered from Recital Publishing at www.recitalpublishing.com. The ISBN number is 978-1-7337464-2-7.