By The Book: Dark Tales of Long Island – LI Noir

Akashic Books, an indie “dedicated to publishing urban literary fiction and political nonfiction,” came out with Brooklyn Noir in 2004, and since then has been issuing a stream of noir short stories that turn on dark doings (menace, violence, murder) and are set in a particular geographical area, the latest of which is Long Island Noir, edited by Wainscott resident Kaylie Jones. Such a collection lends itself to summer reading – you can dip in anywhere and go with the organized flow, or cut away and follow another current. Long Island Noir keeps the faith: the authors are all L.I. born, bred or based, and many of the tales, all original for this volume, exude regional resonance. A front map showing areas from Great Neck to Suffolk County Parkland adds to the local feel, though for sure the most effective stories also transcend time and place.

Of course, in pursuing “noir” Akashic is tapping into a popular genre already well established in film, offering up atmospheric tales that harken to pulp fiction of the past, but that also contrast with much minimalist and narcissistic fiction of today, some of it mannered and full of self-conscious interior ruminations and arcane allusions. To pick up noir fiction is to expect to be entertained by a plot-driven narrative; to read good noir fiction is to be impressed by how talented authors build and sustain interest and evade expected conclusions. The stories seem prompted by events the authors know about first hand or have read about in the news. The more successful make their characters’ extreme behavior seem natural, inevitable, and understandable. As Tim “Seven Eleven” McLoughlin has said, most crimes “are committed by people who just had a bad day or made a bad judgment call.” He marvels how close we all can come to that crossover line.

In any anthology some names will be more familiar than others, but it’s a nice touch that the “About the Contributors” section here appears at the end, ensuring that the stories themselves claim attention first. Jones has done a good job selecting pieces that constitute a diverse collection of subject matter and styles, not to mention local regions (Mastic Beach, Northport, Wainscott, Garden City, Long Beach, Selden, Wantagh, Great Neck, Southampton, Sagaponack, Stony Brook, Amagansett, Sag Harbor, Lake Ronkonkoma, Port Jefferson Station, Bridgehampton and Wading River). It seems a bit arbitrary, though, to have divided the 17 pieces into four “parts” — Family Values, Hitting It Big, Love and Other Horrors, and American Dreamers — since the darkness that informs these tales relates in some way to all those categories.

As Jones said in a recent interview, what connects the stories is “greed for something we don’t have, and jealousy.” In several tales vengeance rules, and nostalgia for a time before hedge fund money and hedgerows took over Long Island landscapes.  Jones, whose father James (From Here to Eternity) Jones (d.1977) is referenced in her own contribution, the memoir-like “Home Invasion,” calls to mind the old Bobby Van’s “long before the dark old tavern decided to turn fancy and move across the street.” Other stories explore the tensions that often arise between the wealthy and the working class where the former are just an accident away from the latter but close enough to breed hostility.

Expectations are not always met: although Jules Feiffer’s strip “Boob Noir” features his iconic nervous protagonist in signature nervous style, the graphic story (how did a dead naked woman get into my apartment?) feels uncomfortable and lacks satiric bite. On the other hand, a fiction debut such as “Anjali’s America” by Dr. Quanta Ahmed, who teaches medicine at Stony Brook University, proves memorable in depicting the staying power
of cultural differences for immigrants.  And for sure, like Charles Salzberg’s “A Starr Burns Bright” a double-cross game played out in Long Beach in the dead of winter, the last piece, “Snow Job” by Tim Tomilson, with its double-entendre title, appropriately closes the collection with its gritty noir theme, ear-perfect tough-talk and surprising, ironic ending.

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