Thursday, May 24, 2012

Don't Fugeddaboutit: The World of a Jersey Shore Wordsmith

Author Gene Ritchings
Full disclosure: Gene Ritchings was our saving grace. In the late 1990s my Critics at Large colleague, Kevin Courrier, and I went down to New York City for ten days to research a book about NBC’s Law & Order. We’d gotten permission and a promise of access from the show’s creator, Dick Wolf, but that blessing did not necessarily mean instant acceptance in the Big Apple. We were interlopers who needed to conduct interviews that arguably might be more in-depth (and perhaps even invasive) than those done by the usual entertainment media briefly visiting the set.

Initially, the crew seemed to eye us with suspicion and the actors barely noticed our existence – until Ritchings, the production coordinator, took us under his wing. He also bent a few rules to help us navigate the bureaucracy and frenetic schedule that any TV series must establish to keep functioning. “We try to ward off the occasional feeling of being beleaguered and overextended and overworked because that’s the life we chose,” he said then. 

After almost 15 seasons at Law & Order, Ritchings returned to a life that’s equally turbulent:  journalism. It’s the career he first embraced at 18 and the New Jersey native has now also written a new novel, Winter in a Summer Town, that taps into his early experiences in print media without becoming a full-blown autobiography. The teen protagonist, Eddie Bonneville, lands a newspaper job covering the Garden State county where he has grown up with profound feelings of anger and alienation. The kid almost kills another student in a boxing match, then struggles to reinvent himself as a coming-of-age citizen committed to nonviolence. That goal is continually challenged by the systemic local  political corruption he encounters as a novice reporter and by the wild zeitgeist of the era, the late 1960s.

During that period in his own life, despite his suspicion that classes were akin to jail rather than “a door to the future,” Ritchings wrote essays for his high school paper on religion, pornography and Vietnam. On the same day one of his pieces about the military draft producing cannon fodder for war appeared, he was expelled due to “excessive truancy” and beaten up by some thuggish contemporaries who disagreed with his views. Good-bye, adolescence. Hello, workaday world. A gig from 1968 through the end of 1969 at the Ocean City Daily Observer, a tabloid only published five days a week, allowed him to pen an opinion column. “I was insufferable. I’d fallen under the spell of Ayn Rand,” he explained, referring to the Atlas Shrugged author whose ideas about laissez-faire capitalism have more recently inspired the Tea Party and various conservative libertarians.

Luckily, he also had been dazzled by Jean Genet, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway. The most influential read was the latter scribe’s memoir, A Moveable Feast, which details his time in the 1920s as a foreign correspondent in Paris for the Toronto Star Weekly. “Like him, I wanted to communicate in prose that’s spare and provocative,” Ritchings said.

Interesting opportunities presented themselves during his Observer stint. Ritchings wrote about the Woodstock festival and a Vietnam moratorium march at which demonstrators were tear-gassed. But what seemed like a real scoop emerged when he received a phone call from a colorful figure Ritchings later discovered had been “a bagman who carried bribes from local businessmen to politicians and eventually went into the witness protection program.” Under intense scrutiny by law enforcement officials, the mobster apparently hoped to settle a few scores by squealing.

“He asked me to bring a tape recorder and interview him. He named names, accusing people of bribery and extortion,” Ritchings recalled. “I thought I’d stumbled onto the story of the century.” Instead, his publisher locked the tape in a safe, saying “the guy was crazy and to go out cover some real news.”

Here’s where real life intersects with fiction, since Winter in a Summer Town involves a tell-all session with the mafioso-like Matty “The Mule” Esposito – who admits to having blood on his hands from assorted killings – and a publisher’s subsequent attempt to stifle the revelations. The stunned youngster does not desist, which subjects him to escalating peril in a region rife with deception and betrayal amid greedy expectation of real estate development schemes.

“I was not as naive and idealistic as Eddie but too unsophisticated to know how to really investigate,” acknowledged Ritchings, who in January 1970 left for a bigger and better publication, the Asbury Park Press. “It’s the paper of record for the Jersey Shore, with a gigantic circulation.”
Once again, he was able to delve into topical issues. “One quiet night, a photographer burst into the newsroom to let us know that blacks were burning down the other end of town,” he said. “I was chased and accosted while covering the riots. And it initiated my exile to another bureau, Tom’s River, about 40 miles away from Asbury Park but light years away culturally.”

His sin? “I think it was because I’d referred (in a story) to the West Side, which was impoverished and mainly African-American, and the East Side, mainly upscale and white,” noted Ritchings, who quit the Asbury Park Press in June 1972 and relocated to California for a few months before signing on as an editor at the Observer back home.

By the summer of 1973, he was hitchhiking around Europe and, in the U.S. again, kicked around for a few years as a roadie for a well-known Jersey bar band, Holme. The guitarist’s sister, working as a second assistant director in the film industry, later found him a production assistant job on The Soldier, a 1982 cold war thriller about terrorists and plutonium and Middle East oil. Other movie projects kept him occupied through the rest of that decade.

Actor Chris Noth on Law & Order
In 1991, television beckoned. He enjoyed steady employment until 2005 at the sprawling Chelsea studios of Law & Order, the mothership program that went on to spawn additional cops-and-courts shows in the Dick Wolf franchise. Ritchings co-wrote the teleplay for a Season Five episode titled “Pride” that aired on May 24,1995. It centers on the homicide of a gay city councilman that may have been a hate crime and spotlights the final performance by Chis Noth as Detective Mike Logan – until he popped up again in the same role for Exiled, a 1998 NBC movie about the character, and on Law & Order: Criminal Intent from 2005 through 2008.

Ritchings crafted a previous literary effort in 2003: Frankenrocker is the sci-fi tale of musicians and mutants manipulated by a corporate Big Brother that has succumbed to the dangerous but profitable lure of image-making. Immersed in his Jersey journalism roots for the past three years or so, he now oversees nine weeklies as acting managing editor of the Hudson Newspaper Group but somehow found the time to finish Winter in a Summer Town. His 344-page endeavor began two decades ago as a screenplay “that arose out of my involvement in the Mythopoetic Men’s Movement.”

For clueless folks like me who draw a bank with this phrase, Wikipedia explains that it’s about liberation from constraints of the modern world that obscure the gender’s true masculine nature. Ritchings attended a lecture by poet Robert Bly, a leader of the cause, which aims to foster emotional and physical well-being.

“Young men are left on their own in how to grow up,” he said. “There’s a sudden burst of testosterone for a boy in puberty. They want attention, admiration and guidance from their male elders but homophobia gets in the way. And they face Oedipal problems. Fathers are there to provide things like food and shelter but not to educate your soul.”

The education of Eddie’s soul in the novel ricochets from a distant, disapproving dad to an editor he initially admires until realizing there's a secret agenda at play. The context is a community full of intolerant straight men driven by avarice and a desire for power. Only Billy, his gay landlord and lawyer, gives the confused lad any sense of solace.

Eddie’s fickle high school sweetheart, Ivy, has gone off to college in Manhattan and hooked up with some Weather Underground types planning a bunch of nasty actions. In order to escape their control, the sexually voracious girl decides to let an old Jersey boyfriend come back into into the picture but never tells him about her complex ties to the militants. Though vehemently opposed to America’s conflict in Vietnam and conscription – an apparent inevitability he’s desperate to avoid – his chosen path as a child of rage is peace.

It’s a fascinating dilemma and, in reality, this path has not been easy for the progressive son of a conservative Republican. “I once met Richard Nixon and probably became a Democrat at that very moment,” Ritchings pointed out.

While promoting his current book, he has started “a psychological thriller set in the world of film and TV production in New York City.” Why not? After toiling for so long in the Law & Order trenches, Ritchings surely knows where all the bodies are buried.

Wait a minute! That’s pretty much what crooked Matty “The Mule” Esposito confesses to an incredulous Eddie Bonneville. But you’ll have to read Winter in a Summer Town for the exact locations.

Gene Ritchings’ novel can be purchased at or

Susan Green is a film critic and arts journalist based in Burlington, Vermont. She is the co-author with Kevin Courrier of Law & Order: The Unofficial Companion and with Randee Dawn of Law & Order Special Victims Unit: The Unofficial Companion.

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