A friend of mine used to have a sugar daddy. He was a prickly old bird who tippled flower vases of vodka in a secluded banquet at the Palms while he waited for her to appear. Even though he had enough loot, it seemed, to buy a goodly portion of Manhattan, he took no real pleasure in the place. It was a necessary evil, a stage for his consumption of booze and broads. But you only had to look at him to know that home was somewhere else in the city, somewhere that had less glamour and more grit.
And grit is the keynote of this new collection of short stories that map out the borough of Brooklyn. Bay Ridge, Coney Island, Brownsville, Fort Greene – there’s trouble everywhere.
Many of the stories, however, have less to do with Hammett and Spillane than Bukowski and Selby. Neal Pollack, for instance, offers in “Scavenger Hunt” the salty ruminations of a geezer who’s taken an early retirement from “a city job.” His wife is a nag so he takes on a new gig to get out of the house – running the carousel at Coney Island. What timing. Coney Island has caught on with the kids and one day two girls show up looking for just the sort of fun that cheers a dirty old man. Unfortunately, along with their kinks, they bring a gun.
Pete Hammill, the legendary writer, also has a woman brandishing a gun but her target is a long-gone lover who is now enjoying an ascendant career as an author. One night he runs into the woman’s brother on the way to a book signing. The brother chronicles his sister’s woes and lays them all at feet of the man who jilted her. The conclusion is audacious if somewhat unbelievable.
Even would-be thugs have a need to be writers in Brooklyn. Kenji Jasper tells of a young gent whose ex-girlfriend, a hot-to-trot Nubian, stops by to taunt him about an upcoming vacation to Brazil with her new “sponsor”. This puts our hero into a pique and he concocts a double-cross of a rival in order to bankroll a hail-mary boarding pass to win his girl back.
Editor Tim McLoughlin offers the strongest story in the collection. In “When All This Was Bay Bridge”, a son buries his father, a cop. Going through the old man’s junk, he discovers the photograph of a woman who was not his mother. Where better to find out about your father’s infidelities than at his favorite watering hole? The bartender, an Irishman who talks in that sort of menacing formal tone so popular in B-movies, greets the son, which rousts the resident cast of boozehounds from their somnambulistic tippling.
It had to have been some sort of signal, because the rest of the relics in the place lurched toward me then, like some nursing-home theater guild performing Night of the Living Dead. They shook hands, engaged in awkward stiff hugs, and offered unintelligible condolences.
The photo of the mystery woman is merely a can-opener for an engaging discussion about how Brooklyn has changed from the days when guys like his dad and his buddies ruled the roost – white men who knew how to drink and to take care of people who didn’t.
Is noir possible now? For all the tough guy gush in these stories, something’s missing. Or rather, something has passed. Indeed, you often get the feeling that the writers are penning elegies to the possibility of writing noir, that the target is alluring but all too allusive. Noir belonged to a different time of America, when things were less complicated in the world, people came in fewer hues and you could see evil for what it was.
In the final story, Chris Niles, a native New Zealander, conjures up a deadbeat journalist who decamped to Eastern Europe after the Fall of the Wall. Now back in New York, the journalist has little to do but down pints and grouse about yet another resurrection of Donald Trump’s fortunes and the ongoing tyranny of soulless yuppies. Only in Brighton Beach, with its mongrel hordes of émigrés making do in ramshackle apartments and kebab shops, does he find some excitement, perhaps a bit too much.
Herein lies the elixir for noir’s dicey health – the endless flow of crazy human beings with wild appetites to and from America’s cities.
About the author: Timothy Dugdale teaches in the Department of English at University of Michigan-Dearborn. he is also the founder of Atomic Quill Media