Dennis Lehane gives a go at the definition of noir (many have tried). There are probably whole college courses on the genre. Lehane (the editor of the Boston Noir edition of the Akashic Books Noir series) calls it “working-class tragedy”. In his introduction labelled “Tribalism & Knuckleheads” he differentiates classic tragic heroes from noir heroes:
Noir heroes die clutching fences or crumpled in trunks or, in the case of poor Eddie Coyle, they simply doze off drunkenly in a car and take one in the back of the head before they have a chance to wake up again. No wise final words, no music swelling on the soundtrack. Eddie Coyle is a good example here because if there’s a more seminal noir novel of the last forty years than “The Friends of Eddie Coyle”, I don’t know of it. And more than just being a seminal noir, it’s also the quintessential Boston novel. It captures the tribalism of the city, the fatalism of it, and the outsized humor of people who believe God likes a good laugh, usually at your expense.
The best stories in the Boston collection revel in that tribalism and are filled with “knuckleheads”. I’ve been around a little, but I don’t know of another city that is identified so closely with this sort of tribalism (good word) – what Boston calls “the nay-buh-hoods”. Lehane bemoans the gentrification of the city with its rapid changes. Some of these stories take off from that fact as well. Because it could be said that another aspect of noir is the loss of what once was ours.
Noir is a genre of loss, of men and women unable to roll with the changing times, so the changing times instead roll over them.
Boston has no corner on the gentrification market though. It’s a national phenomenon, and I’m curious among other things to see how this type of loss may be reflected in the stories out of the Bronx. I actually saw at least three films on DVD last year that fall within this broad umbrella – Everyday People (Brooklyn), Gran Torino (Detroit) and The Friends of Eddie Coyle (Boston). Akashic actually subtitles its web-site, “reverse-gentrification of the literary world”.
From PART I – Fear & Loathing
Two of the four stories here feature loathing of Boston. Whassup with that?
- Exit Interview, Lynne Heitman, Financial District is one of those and not one I cared for (but not for that reason. I can take it after all.
after six long years in this second-rate backwater town, she would be named Managing Director. She would cross the magic line, get her ticket punched, and one day soon, get back home to New York
Well, ouch. But if that’s the way you feel…The ending is abrupt, but not surprising. Standard short-story fare, written as if on assignment, I’m afraid.
- In The Place Where He Belongs, Jim Fusilli, Beacon Hill, the title refers not to Beacon Hill but to New York again. Jaysus, are these stories in the right book? A husband and wife move to Beacon Hill from New York because of the wife’s job. Right away, Jeff has a problem with the move.
Beacon Hill was unbearable. He couldn’t find its rhythm, couldn’t recognize the cues…People were smug and complacent.
Nice writing, but the story itself just seemed too improbable for me to enjoy. Now there’s a good surprise right in the middle, but it’s rather perfunctory after that.
The last two here showcase the spotty nature of the collection, but that can sometimes be the nature of compilations, no? Lehane’s is probably the best. Stands to reason, I guess?
- Animal Rescue, Dennis Lehane, Dorchester really is the best on several levels. It starts off with a great first sentence:
Bob found the dog in the trash.
It’s real Boston neighborhood stuff (shake a tree and a Sullivan falls out, “followed by a six-pack”), there’s a great set of characters, and there’s a real surprise twist at the end. Besides, it’s mob stuff, and you can feel the grimier aspects of Boston’s Dorchester neighborhood.
At the other end, is this one:
- In Dark Waters, Patricia Powell, Watertown, The story hits the gentrification theme, and knows Watertown it seems, many place names are dropped
Watertown, a sleepy little place that had a river running through it…Hard to believe that not too long ago this was considered an old working-class neighborhood full of mainly Irish and Italians who worked in the arsenal. Now the town was full of yuppies driving up property taxes and opening restaurants that served arugula salads and Kobe organic burgers. And the arsenal now housed the gourmet ghetto, expensive artist studios, condominiums, and a high-priced mall.
Thing is, I didn’t know where this was going and neither did the author.
From PART II – Skeletons in the Closet
- In Femme Sole, Dana Cameron, North End there’s an interesting curve ball, since it’s not contemporary or even of recent setting. With the North End (visions of the Italian mob) you would have thought…but the author places this in the year 1745. Cunning here, cunning there. The most cunning of all is the inn owner. But then again, she has to be. She’s a woman. Good one.
- The Dark Island, Brendan DuBois, Boston Harbor. The is the most classic gumshoe noir of the lot (as he laughingly admits in the podcast): Billy Sullivan, Private Eye. Takes place in the forties after the war. Fun, and well written.
- The Reward, Stewart O’Nan, Brookline. Surprisingly bland from Stewart O’Nan.
- The Cross-Eyed Bear, John Dufresne, Southie is a rather good story about clergy sexual abuse. When a priest is accused from out of the past, a sort od diocesan fixer is dispatched to clean up the mess. This all rings too true. This Mr. Markey confronts the accused priest:
“I can’t shake this paranoid fantasy I have of a fellowship of child-molesting priests all going to confession to one another, forgiving one another, and moving on as if nothing ever happened.”
From PART III – Veils of Deceit
- The Oriental Hair Poets, Don Lee, Cambridge, has two poets and a private eye, all Asian. The two poets used to be friends, but literary ambition got in the way. Now one is accusing the other of extraordinary harassment. Either someone’s a whack-o, or someone’s paranoid. They both had books of poetry come out at the same time, so the critic’s lumped them together as per the title of the story. Good Cambridge setting and the story is attention holding in a who’s jivin’ who kinda way.
- The Collar, Itabari Njeri, Roxbury. Huh?
- The thing about Turn Speed, Russ Aborn, North Quincy is that not only am I somewhat familiar with the setting, but I’m familiar with the subject, Turns out that Aborn has a day job in logistics. That’s what I do for a living. So he’s got all the details, right. I like crime stories that pit old school vs. new school, as Aborn does here. I think Aborn has some talent. At least he certainly shows up well against some of the other more experienced writers in this collection.
Intro by Dennis Lehane, with readings by Russ Aborn, Dana Cameron, Brendan DuBois, Lynne Heitman. Lehane ends the podcast with an excerpt from his own story.
If I was to pick three (and one from each section) it would be: Lehane, Dubois, and Aborn. But I’d need to acknowledge Dana Cameron for her unique setting for a noir story. Let’s say “special mention”?