Book Review: ‘Toms River: A Story of Science and Salvation’ by Dan Fagin

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I’ve lived in New Jersey for 28 of my 32 years. I love it for the stories, the attitude, the tomatoes, the music, and our often-inexplicable and irrational defense of our state’s flaws, real as they may be or imagined in national pop culture. I grew up just outside Princeton, in a wealthy suburb of manicured cul-de-sacs and upscale minivans, and all the advantages you’d expect from that idyllic setting, with the exception of the high-tension power lines that crisscrossed over our development. Just one thing — of the half-dozen or so of us kids my age on my block, five of us have battled cancer or systemic diseases in our twenties and thirties. We used to laugh that we were all weird because we were the kids who grew up “in New Jersey, drinking the water, living under the power lines.” We’re not laughing now. It’s a mystery of our environment that we’re never really going to suss out.

And that’s the beauty and the rage of Dan Fagin’s excellent Toms River, which wholly earned its Pulitzer Prize last week. Three decades ago, the residents of sleepy shore town Toms River, N.J. faced the installment of several industrial additions: chemicals and oil dumped nearby soaked into the sandy soil, the chemical plant on the edge of town dumped wastewater out to sea via a poorly-secured pipeline and threw potentially toxic smoke into the air on a daily basis. For decades, town residents wondered if the unusually-high rates of childhood cancer in Toms River had anything to do with these factors. Studies and inquiries proved inconsequential.

And then came Dan Fagin and this book. You’d expect this story to be an investigative news story, with heart-wrenching moments and ghastly details like factory workers finding their undergarments melting into their skin, dying children, and broken, lost parents. And those are here, to be sure — but it’s not how Fagin tells the tale. Instead, Fagin focuses on the “why” of it all first: small details and historical asides weave in and out of the story of Toms River, providing background of how the dye industry came to be, the ins-and-outs of waste disposal in America and its methodologies, the considerations (and lacks thereof) of occupational health hazards in a number of similar towns and scenarios, and a riveting and surprising explanation of how cancer works and forms at the molecular level. Fagin does more than provide the facts; he works hard to make the reader understand, at every level, why this happened in Toms River, why this is a systemic and societal problem, and why cancer is the byproduct. He makes a stunning point at the core of this book: anything and everything in our lives can be a poison, if we consider the dosage.

He employs around three hundred characters in this book, from scientists to farmers to destitute truckers to an army of Greenpeace warriors holed up in a beach house. And then there’s the victims, whose stories are told respectfully and without a need to bleed your heart. Fagin treats Toms River itself as both the primary character and the defendant in a trial for the ages; he builds his case carefully and makes sure we fall in love with this town and its people. Which of course, makes the tragedy and toxicity of the town that much more awful and poignant.

At the end of the story, we find ourselves halfway across the world, as the industrial complex moves to China, where regulations are lax, and the implication is that these horrors will continue. Fagin’s done a miraculous thing; he’s written a story that lays out the facts in such a meticulous and slow-building fashion that we can’t help but turn the last page and be overcome with a sense of love for this town, sorrow for these people, and an abject need to fight and prevent these horrors from happening somewhere else. The mystery is gone; the facts and the reasons for what has happened is out there, displayed in edge-of-your-seat storytelling and clarity.

I’ll always love New Jersey. I’ll always wonder what happened in my community, about fifty miles inland from Toms River. Because of this book, the residents of Toms River don’t have to wonder. It’s journalism and art that invokes truth and powerful change. I can’t recommend it enough.

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