*** New Jersey Noir

New Jersey NoirEdited by Joyce Carol Oates. It isn’t a coincidence that I’m reviewing this 2011 book of noir short stories in the middle of two weeks of Sunday blog posts about a celebration of JCO’s teaching. When I knew I was going to the event, I grabbed this book from the “to read” pile.

Noir is distinguished from other types of mystery and suspense fiction by having a protagonist who’s a suspect, a perpetrator, or even a victim—an insider to the situation. Pretty much anyone but a detective/investigator. Often the main characters have a boatload of problems, usually of their own making. My favorite definition of these protagonists is crime writer Dennis Lehane’s: “In Greek tragedy, they fall from great heights. In noir, they fall from the curb.”

I’ve been an “in principle” admirer of Akashic Books’ now lengthy series of place-based noir anthologies, and picked up New Jersey Noir at a local bookstore event, where Oates spoke about it and introduced (I think) one or two of the contributors. Now I’ve finally read it and am disappointed to say many of the 19 stories and poems felt as if they could have happened anywhere.

Sheila Kohler’s creepy “Wunderlich,” for example, is about the bleak territory of aging, not the peculiar dynamic of New Jersey. Various other tales have no more than a whiff of Garden State verisimilitude, which violates the underlying rationale of the series, I’d think. Collectively, these stories hardly scratch the surface of the state’s noir potential, as a glance at any of our daily newspapers would reveal. People in New Jersey fall from curbs like lemmings.

Too many of the stories (for my taste) lean heavily on substance abuse problems, which it won’t surprise the reader to learn cause all kinds of heartache. I rather liked the Bradford Morrow story set in Grover’s Mill, perhaps because I’d just spent considerable creative time there, myself. “Glass Eels” by Jeffrey Ford captures the loneliness of New Jersey’s Pine Barrens, but is too similar in action to Robert Arellano’s “Kettle Run.” A story by Oates, “Run Kiss Daddy,” delivers a sufficiently oppressive atmosphere and dark underbelly to be the setup for a longer piece of writing. To me, the most interesting story is Jonathan Safran Foer’s “Too Near Real,” in which the protagonist follows the Google street view vehicle around Princeton, then watches himself “on the map.” Fresh and entertaining.