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Hamptons Life

May 10, 2019 4:58 PMPublication: The East Hampton Press & The Southampton Press

It May Be Fiction, But Jason Allen, Author Of 'The East End' Grew Up With The Reality

May 10, 2019 4:58 PM

At this time of year, like Friday traffic heading east on Sunrise Highway, Hamptons-based books start popping up on shelves everywhere. Often these books are murder mysteries in which the locals are pitted against clueless summer visitors. While certainly fun to read, these books are often written by authors who have only a passing familiarity with the area and don’t bring a perspective that is truly reflective of life on the East End.

But Jason Allen’s debut novel, “The East End” (Park Row Books/HarperCollins) is different. That’s because Mr. Allen, who lives in Atlanta, Georgia, and teaches writing at Clayton State University, spent his formative years as a working-class kid in Hampton Bays. The son of a single mother, he attended Hampton Bays public schools from kindergarten through high school and as a young man held an endless succession of physical labor jobs where he worked for people of much greater means.

At age 10, Mr. Allen’s first job was helping his father, a hardwood floor refinisher, move furniture on job sites. At 12, Mr. Allen was washing dishes in an Italian restaurant, and by 14, he was behind the counter at Pete’s Deli next door to the Boardy Barn in Hampton Bays.

“Sunday afternoon was like the apocalypse,” he recalled of that last job during a recent phone interview. “People would be black-out drunk and bleeding after getting kicked out of the Boardy Barn. They’d come in the deli and want to fight me.”

“I think I should write about all the jobs I had,” he added. “I cleaned pools for the rich people for five years and shared a house with guys I knew. This was from 1999 to 2003; we rented a three-bedroom house one summer. There were seven of us with two dogs, and it was still expensive.”

On Sunday, May 19, Mr. Allen will be back in his old stomping ground to read from “The East End” at BookHampton in East Hampton, and though his experiences are definitely reflected in the book’s pages, the plot departs substantially and dramatically from his own real life.

The protagonist in “The East End” is a young man named Corey Halpern, a soon-to-be high school graduate from a broken home. Like many young people, Corey’s looking to escape the Hamptons by going off to college in the fall, but first, he has to make some money. For that reason he has agreed to spend the summer helping his mother, Gina, at the mansion on Lake Agawam where she has worked as a caretaker for decades. But Gina has serious issues to cope with, namely alcohol and drug addiction, as well as an abusive and largely absent second husband.

Truth be told, all the characters in the book have their dark side, even Corey, whose predilection is breaking into oceanfront mansions in the off-season. Once inside these homes, he doesn’t steal anything but rather creates havoc by moving objects around or dumping salt into milk containers. That all changes the Thursday before Memorial Day when Corey sneaks into the supposedly empty home of Leo Sheffield, his mother’s employer, late at night where he witnesses far more than he bargained for.

“I wanted to tell a story that took place where I grew up. In the entire world there may not be another 5-square-mile area of income disparity like the Hamptons,” Mr. Allen explained when asked about why he chose this topic for his first novel. “My mom worked for a multimillion-dollar family, like Gina, but everything else is fictional except for the setting of the house.”

As a kid growing up, the economic disparity of the East End was palpable and obvious. While Mr. Allen had a few friends with a lot of money, he admits that most of his friends were working-class poor.

“My mom didn’t want to think we were poor, but there were times when we were scraping by,” said Mr. Allen, who found in the dichotomy of life on the East End a story worth telling. “I really felt that there was something there—people on welfare who could walk to where my mom worked. It was a massive disparity and most people don’t know that.”

When asked how true to life the wealthy Sheffields depicted in the book are, Mr. Allen notes that while the family his own mother worked for did live on Lake Agawam, they were much kinder than the fictional employers he writes about.

“I heard they sold the house about 20 years ago. I’m hoping if they read the book they would know this isn’t them,” said Mr. Allen, who adds that other people he grew up with are also within its pages in one form or another.

He clarified, however, that his own mother, who didn’t drink, is completely opposite of the character of Gina. He explained that he imposed substance abuse issues on Gina because he wanted to write about addiction as central theme of “The East End.”

“Addiction and recovery is important to me,” he said. “I’ve had my own journey with it, as have my relatives and closest friends. Everyone I have cared about has struggled with addition and alcoholism.”

Whether Corey will or will not escape from his hometown is a question that readers of “The East End” will have to find out for themselves, but in 2004, Mr. Allen quit cleaning pools and left the East End for good. Eventually he earned his MFA at Pacific University in Oregon and his Ph.D. in literature and creative writing at Binghamton University.

Mr. Allen has already written books of fiction, poetry and memoir, and now, his first novel is hitting stores just as all the other Hamptons summer reads are making an appearance. But Mr. Allen doesn’t really feel his book fits into the “beach read” genre. He added that the complications of good versus evil found in television series like “Breaking Bad” are the kinds of stories he’s interested in telling.

“My agent is the one who uses the term ‘beach read,’” Mr. Allen said. “I wanted to write a literary novel that is extremely tense. The emotion is what I love.”

“When someone describes my book as a literary novel with thriller pacing, that’s the type I’m most drawn to writing,” added Mr. Allen who, this weekend, returns to the East End for the first time in 15 years.

“I haven’t been back to the area since I left,” he said. “Some people on the island will be at the reading. People keep updating me on how much it has changed.”

Good thing the intrigue of a well-considered Hamptons novel never does.

Jason Allen reads from “The East End” at 5 p.m. on Sunday, May 19, at BookHampton, 41 Main Street, East Hampton. For information visit bookhampton.com or call 631-324-4939.

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