Writer Daniel Nester says that if he gets a bit full of himself, "a little 'Shader' appears on my shoulder to cut through the pretension."
"Shader" is South Jersey-speak for a native or resident of Maple Shade, the proudly unpretentious Burlington County burb that provides the title and much of the setting for Nester's pungent new memoir.
"Being a Shader is about being no-nonsense and having a blue-collar outlook," Nester, 47, says from the College of St. Rose in Albany, N.Y., where he is an associate professor of English. "It's an attitude, but it's also like my conscience."
Deftly written in brisk chapters with names like "Notes on Shader Record Nerds," Shader (99: The Press) is Nester's fifth book. Earlier publications include poetry and humor collections, as well as two volumes of ruminations on the band Queen.
Shader is mostly about growing up in a working-class Catholic family in 1970s and '80s South Jersey - a landscape of malls, Wawas, and cemeteries where teenagers drank cheap beer.
"There's a carload of dudes from Cinnaminson at the custard stand," an older boy would say as he smoked cigarettes on Steinhauer Hill. "Let's go beat the s- out of them!"
The book is about more than a town, of course; it's also about having a strong mother, a little sister with Madonna-inspired attire, and a hardworking, if erratic, father unsettlingly obsessed with Nazi Germany.
And it's about the saving grace of poetry and rock and roll.
"Going to record stores," Nester tells me, "took the place of going to church."
In Shader, his hapless yet self-aware younger self endures becoming "the Maple Shade strikeout king" and writes, "I am the punch line of a cosmic joke," after his moped is stolen.
Nester gets beaten up by bullies, takes a job at a car wash, loses his virginity (more or less), and nearly has his foot amputated by a runaway lawn mower. He also witnesses the disintegration of his parents' marriage. Mike Nester, a barrel-chested truck driver, eventually leaves his wife and children for a new life in Arizona.
"The book was hard to write," says the author. "The first five drafts focused mostly on my father. When he died in Arizona in 2013, I hadn't seen him since 1990, and I hadn't talked to him in 14 years."
"Those drafts were about anger," Nester continues. "I knew they wouldn't make for a good book; it wouldn't be a truthful story. I tell my students, they have to go through those drafts to get to the real draft, the good draft."
Nester knows whereof he teaches: Shader affectingly explores youthful pain without retroactive adult resentments of the sort that can curdle into self-pity.
Wit is the author's default instead.
"Over the years, I've tried to figure out where things went wrong in high school, where I morphed from God-fearing, Phil Collins-loving honor student to Cadillac emblem-stealing, binge-drinking juvenile delinquent with spotty punk-rock credibility."
In Shader, Nester never quite figures it out. But he does leave Maple Shade for (relatively) cosmopolitan Camden Catholic High School. He is accepted at Rutgers-Camden; his account of living on campus in the 1980s is a vivid sketch of the city.
Nester meets up with assorted Goths, gays, stoners, and "painters who rented spooky old houses" near the campus.
"They liked the empty Camden streets and pay phones that rang at all hours. These were the people who became my friends."
Some of these friends don't survive the era's excesses. The author, who did his share of partying, says he isn't sure how, or why, he emerged relatively unscathed.
But Nester says he always enjoyed learning and writing. Having what he calls a "no-nonsense" background also was a source of strength, he adds.
"Once I became a parent, I began to realize how unique Maple Shade and South Jersey were," says the author, who lives with his wife and two daughters near Albany.
While he no longer has relatives living in Maple Shade, he makes it a point to ride by his old house when he's in the area.
"Maple Shade is a presence wherever I go," Nester says. "I'm a Shader at heart."
Daniel Nester is scheduled to attend the South Jersey launch party for "Shader" at 7 p.m. Friday at Bobby Ray's bar and grill, 6324 Westfield Ave., Pennsauken.