ARCHIVE: Sidewalk Swindlers and Saviors

JackieCorleyABy TOM CHESEK (First published on Red Bank oRBit September 8, 2008)

Maybe it’s the midnight shuffle we carry in us, thick and slow, or the fading waitresses and their bitter glory, but spirits melt into diner walls just as strong as they do into graveyard soil.

From “Catfish Boys,” ©2008 by Jackie Corley

There’s no hope for someone like Jackie Corley.

By that we mean no hope of her ever gaining re-entry to the mainstream of suburban Monmouth County life. Not after an intense bunch of years spent as a young newspaper reporter and political blogger — first with Middletown’s venerably nutty weekly The Courier, then with her own Bayshore Journalista site and a whole lot of other online forums.

For the past several years, Corley has maintained a parallel career for herself — as editor and publisher of the literary website Word Riot — a more highly evolved descendent of all those Xeroxed “zines'” that circulated back in the age of the spoken-word slam. It’s an endeavor that’s placed the 26-year old Freehold resident at the heart of a burgeoning scene of small-scale DIY publishers.

But Corley’s also been honing her own fiction in good old-fashioned print outlets. This Autumn, she prepares for the release of The Suburban Swindle, her first solo volume of short stories from So New Books. A collection of pointed pieces, some no longer than a hardcore punk song, Swindle’s eight tales paint an unpretty picture of young lives spent largely wasted on the sidestreets, strip clubs and cemeteries of what is unmistakably Red Bank and the county beyond.

Red Bank oRBit caught up with the prolific author at one of her favorite downtown haunts, the Dublin House, for a crash-course on her work and a spirited discussion of life on the “Upper Wet Side” of Monmouth County’s Bayshore.

The air died and dried up on Monmouth Street and its half mile of sullen brick buildings and empty parking lots south of the river.

There were no cop cars patrolling the center of town after three a.m., and the suburban hucksters and sloshed college graduates well past their prime had ambled home to friendlier fucks and fires.

From “Persons of Bondage,” ©2008 by Jackie Corley

RED BANK ORBIT: Fill us in on Word Riot, which you’ve based your reputation on, at least as regards the area outside Monmouth County.

JACKIE CORLEY: Word Riot is an online literary magazine, featuring both experimental and mainstream prose and poetry, plus author interviews. It started as the literary section of an online music magazine established by a woman named Paula Anderson, and it expanded into its own site in 2002 — which means it’s been around for six years, which in online time is ancient.

How’d it go from there to being a publisher of actual, physical-object books?

Coming from print myself, I thought that I really have to start a press — there are a lot of people still who don’t take you seriously unless you’ve had a print volume published. For the first book, I put out a collection of blog entries by Paula. A year and a half later she passed away in a car crash — they read excerpts from this book at the service. I was happy that I could give her family something like this. I also dedicated my book to her.

When it came to publish your own collection of stories — and it’s your first book, right? — you didn’t put it out under the Word Riot imprint.

Yes, this is my first book, and no, I published it with a small press that I was familiar with over the years. My feeling is that they can help out with the promotion, When I’m touring, doing readings, it’s good to have something out there on the table.

I don’t recall ever seeing you do a bookstore appearance around here…

Actually, I’ve never done a ton of promotion around here. What I do is, I target certain indie bookstores — and most of them are out west. Oregon, Seattle. I’m going down to Maryland to do a reading this weekend.

So your very Jersey-centric writing has a fan base that’s drawn largely from other regions of the country.

I like to hold on to my Jersey roots. When I’m on tour, doing readings, people come at Jersey with a certain set of perceptions, but you know we have a rich cultural history here. Mailer, Springsteen, Smith.

Patti Smith? Kevin?

I meant Kevin Smith. I remember when he was filming Clerks 2 out in the Courier parking lot, out by the Evil Clown sign on the highway — he had always wanted to get that sign in one  of his movies. People were buying flasks over at the Spirits Unlimited and filling them for the cast and crew.

I think it’s wild that you covered the Bayshore area for the Courier — an education like you’ll never get in journalism school (NOTE: we’re cutting out about a half hour’s worth of Bayshore lore and legend, personal reminiscences, bizarre tales of crime, degradation, and strange smells).

I had a great time working with The Courier! And I love reading weeklies. The reporters there stay on their beats, as opposed to a lot of the big dailies. It’s great to see them being so into their jobs. I really loved towns like Keansburg — TJK Stadium (the Beachway sports bar now known as Tiki Stadium) was one of my favorite places to go.

One of the best labels I got as a reporter was “The Queen of White Trash” — I was so happy. I’m from the Oak Hill section of Middletown, and I tried to shun my upper middle class upbringing. It felt redeeming to be part of the community I covered. You know where folks in Keansburg are coming from. They’re all heart!

Having done that time at the Courier, you must have an affinity for the Evil Clown. It’s our Tillie — Hell, it kicks Tillie’s invisible ass. But I worry that it won’t be long for this world in a post-Joe Azzolina era.

I wouldn’t worry. Joe Junior is all about the clown. Anyway, I heard that in the old days, the thing to do was to spin the clown around, at night when the sign was turned off.

The Middletown version of cow tipping. But what about the Red Bank connection; you mentioned that a lot of your stories use Red Bank for a setting.

All roads lead back to the Broadway Diner, scene of much inspiration and the World’s Best Pancakes.

I would say fifty to seventy-five percent of what’s in my stories is somehow inspired by things that happened while I was loitering around Red Bank. It was very much my main hangout back in the days of Black Cat Records and the Book Pit.

A lot of the book has a punk rock vibe to it; it takes place in bars. There’s the one story “Dancing Jesus at the Broadway Diner;” it takes place at the diner and at the Chapel Hill cemetery where the famous dancing statue of Jesus is. I was inspired to write it when a friend of mine was beat up in an alleyway behind the diner. Another story mentions an old gas station down Monmouth Street — a friend of mine got beat up there, too.

Hm. Well, that seems to be your experience of Red Bank, whereas you look at some of the other magazines and newspapers around here and get the sense that it’s all champagne and caviar. And then other people will tell you that there’s absolutely nothing going on here.

There’s an array of experiences to be had here if you want them. You want to throw yourself into a punk concert at night, then by day go walking around Hartshorne Woods. And New Jersey has a lot more organic characters than New York does. Someone like (Monmouth County SPCA chief cop and martial arts studio owner) Buddy Amato — a dog-chasing, top 50 karate guy, dedicated animal cop. You can’t script somebody like that.

I feel like integrating more of a literary thing into the local scene, and I’d like to see a less stuffy literary atmosphere here. But there’s that whole upper-class thing — you know, theMAR Magazine thing. Why can’t we just embrace what we are?