Mark Spitzer reviews The Joppenbergh Jump: a novel by Mark Morganstern

The Joppenbergh Jump, a novel by Mark Morganstern; Recital Publishing; ISBN: 978-1-7337464-2-7

About five years ago, I was introduced to a groovy little village in the Hudson Valley known as Rosendale, where the residents are feverishly pro-Bernie, and there’s a lot of old hippies, tie-dye, and gluten-free details to be seen along the Main Street drag. There’s a Tibetan gift shop here, a used record/bookstore there, a tearoom, a tavern, a cheese shop with vintage clothing in the back, a farmer’s market on the weekend, an annual pickle festival, and in the center of it all (at least from my perspective), a vegetarian cafe where musicians from around the world regularly play and local artists display their work. 

This is the Rosendale Cafe, where built into the base of Joppenbergh Mountain in the foothills of the Shawgunk Mountain Range, you can see the remnants of nineteenth-century cement kilns once used to build bridges, roads, dams, power plants, and various other infrastructures for the region and beyond. This is also where Renaissance man Mark Morganstern lives and works and set the scene of his just-published novel The Joppenbergh Jump. I say “Renaissance man” because Morganstern, who co-owns and runs the Rosendale Café with his partner Susan, is also an accomplished playwright and short story author with a background in music and substitute teaching. In addition to being a community figure and restauranteur with a fine selection of IPAs, Morganstern is now a novelist. 

The narrative involves a PTSD-riddled Afghanistan veteran trying to make his peace in a place situated somewhere literally between the historical counter-culture of Woodstock and the cosmopolitan cosmos of the world’s most metropolitan city. And just like the colorful environs of Rosendale, Morganstern’s storyline has it all: hallucinogenic marching bands, an inflammatory antagonist, communicative apparitions, hidden treasures, vegan fare, mycology, lemon haze, local landmarks like Rondout Creek and the Trestle Bridge, and the complexities of interpersonal relationships that make life both rewarding and maddening.

            Anyway, since Rosendale has its own highly unique character, and since Morganstern effectively reflects that character, and since the character of place is a hot subject anywhere, I asked the author if he’d be willing to be interviewed in order to place this place (and his place in this place) more into perspective. Thus, my first question had to do with why he never called out Rosendale by name, usually referring to it as “a hamlet” instead.

            “Sometimes writers . . . set up a challenge for themselves,” Morganstern replied. “In my case, not mentioning the name of the place added some tension and energy to the writing of it. Leaving the name out allowed me to recreate my small town but on a more universal level. Something like Our Town, but with people acting out, petty competitions, regrettable behaviors . . . [and] all the vagaries of human interaction.”

            The tension that Morganstern refers to is definitely a working construct in the novel, and it isn’t just limited to the tension of place. There is also quite a lot of psychological tension visible within and between characters. Readers follow Coot Friedman in escapades ranging from constantly getting beat up to injuring himself and others to disappointing his wife and daughter. It’s always easy to empathize with characters who keep screwing up, and Morganstern capitalizes on this quality to tell the tale of a complex character who is essentially a fuck up. In fact, Morganstern asserts, “There is purpose and meaning to his fucking up.”

            For one thing, Coot’s screw ups provide the conflict that drive the story. Coot and his friend Zeiter get captured by government agents and a strange sect of Hasidic Jews. Violent allergies happen, and there’s some painful wooing along a rough road that eventually leads to a certain amount of romantic success. But from these, purpose and meaning do arise. Take this first-person reflection from Coot, for example:

            I’ve got this theory . . . It goes like this: the amount of love you have for a person, and that person for you, is doubled to the negative lack of love when that love goes bad or is withdrawn. Let L stand for love. X stands for the amount of love. And -2X stands for the amount of love lost, which is twice that first given. At least that’s how it feels. LOL stands for loss of love. Hence the formula XL > 12X / LOL = shit. Ergo shit = shit . . . that’s why you feel like shit when someone dumps you (164).

            But how to categorize the literary tradition this novel fits into? Is it a romance, an adventure, a thriller, or as a recent book review in Blue Stone Press noted, “a surrealistic comedy.”

At times I would agree with that latter (especially during Coot’s psychedelic deliriums and encounters with ghosts that occur throughout the book), but I’d also say there’s a degree of magical postmodernism (as opposed to the idea of magical realism) at work here. I state this because there’s a lot of play and humor in the novel that goes beyond the realism-based intentions of art imitating life down to the minute details. This is a narrative in which supernatural channelings transport our POVs to prior moments in history, in which our hero gains access to a hovering underworld from a gang of unearthly sentinel heads, and it’s a narrative in which readers sometimes find themselves wondering if they’re taking part in some sort of Boschian parade or if somebody slipped them a roofie. 

I’m reminded of French poet Arthur Rimbaud, whose Illuminations offer a carnival-feast of vivid visual elements. I’m thinking of the prose poem “Ruts” specifically, in which readers experience a phantasmagoria of “Fairy procession[s] … loaded with animals of gilded wood, poles, and gaily-striped cloth . . . spotted circus horses . . . [with] flags and flowers like ancient or story-book carriages, full of children all dressed for an outing.”2 But what’s finally revealed under all that gala fanfare? Coffins, that’s what!

Similarly, Morganstern’s amusing journey also harbors an underbelly that’s as serious as it is deadly. Coot has trauma harking back to Afghanistan, and he is consistently worried that he’s not doing right by his family and friends. He screws himself over in recovering the murder weapon, and he frequently screws himself up when climbing around on the mountain. Coot is therefore emblematic of the imperfections in all of us, and the existential screw ups we all face. As articulated in the epilogue, “The porches shimmer; the windows yawn. The chimneys release the vapor of failed effort, the effluence of exhausted dreams. None of us will carry away what we cherish most when we’re gone. This darkness is also what animates this place” (311). 

A place, I should add, where the bedrock contains more than just a karst topography filled with “sinkholes, cliffs, ravines, crevices, and gaping cave mouths one should never enter” (7). It’s place where Morganstern made it his objective to show “human concerns, struggles, and matters of the heart . . . Otherwise, there’d be no point.” After all, this novel is based on a landscape where men have toiled and died in lost and collapsed mines. But it’s also a place that reflects the victories of industry and the über-liberal perseverance of a quixotic population symbolically striving for the sky.

This is where the main metaphor of the book comes in. The actual Joppenbergh Jump was a world-class ski jump active for a few decades in the previous century. That’s where a Middlebury College student soared “226 feet during practice, in front of 3,500 spectators,”and that’s where Coot Friedman finds himself ascending in a similar manner.

Morganstern, on the other hand, has also made a quantum leap in rendering this theme of transcendence. The Joppenbergh Jump being his modus operandi, we ultimately find ourselves soaring with Coot high above the intersection of fiction and history—in Rosendale USA, where the spirit of a richly vibrant place is now documented in a novel novel that might be made up, but still contains a lot of truth.

End Notes

1. Craig, Anne Pyburn. “Dazzling Rosendale: The ‘Joppenburgh Jump’ Has Landed,” Blue Stone Press, May 15, 2020.

2. Rimbaud, Arthur. Wallace Fowlie, trans. Rimbaud: Complete Works, Selected Letters. The University of Chicago Press: Chicago, 1966.

3. Platt, Frances Marion. “Ski Jumping Over Downtown Rosendale: A History,” hv1,https://hudsonvalleyone.com/2019/01/24/ski-jumping-over-downtown-rosendale-a-history/, January 4, 2019.

Review by Mark Spitzer

Mark Spitzer is the author of 30 books, most of them about big, ugly fish and their environmental issues. He splits his time between the foothills of the Ozark Mountains in Arkansas and the foothills of the Shawgunk Mountain Range in NY State. He is a professor of creative writing. More info at sptzr.net.

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