Reviewed by Matt Meade
256 pp Akashic Books
Since the publication of 2004’s Brooklyn Noir, Akashic Books have been publishing regionally based collections to great acclaim and success, each one slightly retooling the definition of noir to fit the idiosyncrasies, beauties, and uglies of their particular square of the Edward-Hopper-Lit sidewalk.
Here we are, more than 75 years past the release of John Huston’s 1941 take on The Maltese Falcon and literature is still responding to that film, still trying to figure out how to formulate that strange alchemy of crime, post-war malaise, sensitive street tough, and existential dread. The film was, of course, itself an interpretation of Dashiell Hammet’s serialized novel which was an upscale take on the pulp adventure tales that were sold for a penny at tobacco shops. From the beginning the genre has been a response to a response, a reflection of a reflection, a costume worn on top of a costume; the highest form of the art considering the lowest, the sublime meeting the crass. The noir genre is unique in this respect. Other genres, such as romance, science-fiction, and horror, have their roots in literature that dates back to the advent of the novel while noir has the distinction of being a genre adapted from literature, presented on the screen, and then mimicked by literature again. The genre boasts a self-reflectiveness that tends to expose the intentions of storytellers, their worlds and mechanisms built in transparent and intentional ways. The semiotics of the genre is identifiable to any reader; the criminal landscape mimicking the anarchy of the soul, the gun as solution, love as a risk.
The stories in this collection nod to the genre’s cinema history both explicitly (with characters nicknaming each other after silver screen icons like Katherine Hepburn, and the bars they frequent being named things like “The Hollywood”) and implicitly (with one story daring to try to pull off the Sunset Boulevard finish and another with the audacity to include a script). Some of the stories, like Suzanne Hudson’s predictable “Deepwater, Dark Horizons” and Brad Watson’s lush “Laughing Boy, Crooked Girl,” are merely good enough exercises in the genre, successfully combining sexual promiscuity, violence, and heist schemes with Alabaman locales and characters named Yoder and Aunt Sip. Others, however, are little more than bland misinterpretations of the noir tale; like D. Winston Brown’s “The Junction Boys” and Michelle Richmond’s sticky revenge fantasy, “What Brings You Back Home.” Both Brown’s and Richmond’s stories employ nefarious and one-dimensional villains so evil it’s hard to take them seriously, and the respective revenges extracted by the protagonists are unearned and hollow examples of wish-fulfillment fantasies.
The most egregiously bad story is Winston Groom’s “Murder at the Grand Hotel.” It’s a story with wacky, Rube Goldberg murder contraptions that draws its inspiration from Wile E. Coyote more than James M. Cain and proves itself to be supremely silly, even employing the onomatopoeic “sproing” in the crassest way possible. At least the story, by turning kyphosis and dwarfism into hilarious (?) gags, does the work of continuing noir fiction’s long history of exploitation.
The most effective stories tend to be the ones that transcend the trappings of the genre. Though Kirk Curnutt’s story “Bubba and Romy’s Platonic Bender” is a taut thriller with crime and murder at its beating heart, it succeeds because it manages to present some genuinely ruthless characters set in opposition to heroes we’d actually like to see win, heroes with some interesting tenderness and missteps for which we futilely hope they will be forgiven.
It is when the characters venture beyond their station that the noir gods become most unhappy and the characters are most severely punished. When lowly butcher Jimbo in Wendy Reed’s “Custom Meats” tries to court a rich woman, when the ironically named African-American man Ronald Justice tries to date a white girl in Anthony Grooms’ “Come like a Thief,” when a would-be kidnapper sees himself as a liberator in Ace Atkins’ “Sweet Baby,” the worlds of these stories teach their misguided characters hard lessons. And yet we root for these outcasts and poseurs, these strivers, these up-enders of the status quo. We want them to reach beyond their grasp, and it is that identification with the characters that elevate the stories.
The collection is at its best when it is testing the limits of the genre. For example, in a genre dominated by Jack Nicholsonian male urges, the Max Cady leer of the male gaze, and the legend of the Underwood-banging male writer, the collection shines when women come to the forefront. Carolyn Haines finds a way for her actualized female protagonist to achieve revenge in the solidly bleak, lacking-in-pretension, and non-judgmental tale, “The Price of Indulgence;” Ravi Howard’s “The Good Thief” employs a woman to offer a tiny bit of comfort and mercy in a world that routinely lacks it, while Tom Franklin’s story, “Her Job,” sees a mother dealing with the consequences of her son’s bad behavior.
Daniel Wallace’s contribution, “Triptych,” is the highlight of the collection. It is strange and eerie and fractured in such a way that it is like cracking an egg to reveal the bright yellow yolk inside. It is David Lynch meets Ron Rash, a ghost story delivered in the context of a genre that rarely admits how deeply it is concerned with ghosts, haunting, and the deepest of deep-seated fear.
While the stories presented in the collection may be uneven, Akashic’s project is so strong that it overshadows any individual writer’s missteps. Alabama Noir presents a group of stories diverse in their approach, their subject matter, their sub-genre, their influences, and their political perspective, and it can be fascinating to see how those varied influences intersect. The series as a whole is a triumphant and vibrant series that continues to ask questions about genre, the juncture of medium, the relevance of literature in context of film, the place of crime and transgression in the world.
Ultimately, Alabama Noir is a hit-or-miss assortment, but what else might a reader want from a collection of tales from the noir sub-classification, that emigre from the land of pulp who grew up and Gatsbied themselves into something presentable? Finding a diamond in the rough (or a more genre appropriate metaphor: a duffel bag full of unmarked bills in the trunk of a dead man’s car) is half the fun of being a fan of the genre. Alabama Noir (and the series as a whole) has a sampling of the crass, the offensive, the tawdry, the mean, the titillating, the insightful, and the sublime for anyone who goes looking.
Matt Meade was the winner of Columbia University’s EVOLVE fiction contest. His fiction has appeared in The Sun Magazine, Sou’wester, Bourbon Penn, and elsewhere.