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San Francisco Noir

Peter Maravelis

(Akashic Books)

A Dark Side Tour of Baghdad by the Bay

More than any other city in America, with the probable exception of New York, San Francisco is a Moebius strip of a place, winding into itself endlessly. Bound on three sides by water, the peninsula city is little more seven miles wide and has been shaped by geography and history to build in two directions: in and up. Neighborhoods stack tightly, especially in the northeast downtown area. A 15-minute walk can take you from the dizzying skyscrapers of the financial district through the jumbled alleys of Chinatown, up to the patrician mansions of Nob Hill, and back down again into the still-rowdy red-light districts of North Beach, where Kerouac wandered and Ginsberg howled.


Out there on the foggy edge on the continent, with its outlaw history, mad riot of architecture and strangely cold sun, San Francisco casts some long, weird shadows. And so it follows that noir—that slippery genre of danger and darkness—has always kept a comfortable kip in the City by the Bay.


That’s where San Francisco Noir comes in. A collection of short stories from Bay Area authors, the book is the latest in the Noir Series from the ambitious New York small press Akashic Books, following the success of Brooklyn Noir and Chicago Noir. (Upcoming Noir Series are planned spotlighting Washington, D.C., Los Angles, Miami, and expanding across the waters to Dublin and Havana.)


Any truly big city, locals can tell you, is really just a collection of smaller cities jammed together. San Francisco Noir is organized and sequenced on this principle, each story subtitled with a particular neighborhood or district. Akashic recruits local writers for these collections, and the stories all trade heavily on a specific and authentic sense of place.


If you’ve ever lived in San Francisco, or have spent enough time there otherwise, then San Francisco Noir opens up—flowers, even—in a marvelously intimate way. That’s the real strength of the book—and the series as a whole, I would expect. I don’t know about Brooklyn or Havana, but I do know about San Francisco—for several years I kicked around that amazing city and fell completely in love. Dumped my car, walked everywhere, and read everything I could get my hands on about the history of the place. I’d be there still if it were at all possible to afford. San Francisco is the place to be if you want to see the disappearance of the American middle class happen right in front of your eyes.


San Francisco Noir is like a drunken trip down the nightmare alleys just off Memory Lane. “Edge City,” the first of the book’s four parts, hews most closely to classic noir traditions. Domenic Stansberry’s “The Prison” takes place in North Beach after the end of WWII, and puts us behind the dangerous eyes of a soldier returning to his old Italian neighborhood. David Corbett’s “It Can Happen” chronicles the traditional double-crosses between haves and have-nots in Hunter’s Point. These first stories are the most straightforward and plot-driven of the collection, and make for a good easing-in.


“Part II: In Memorium to Identity,” and “Part III, Neo-Noir,” excavate the more psychological and notional realms of noir. Alvin Lu’s “Chinatown” is steeped in the radical politics of 1970s counterculture, when a young man might find Huey Newton and Chairman Mao both laying claim to his soul. Jim Nisbet’s “Weight Less Than Shadow” attempts a noir/sci-fi fusion concerning the Golden Gate Bridge, and John Longhi’s “Fixed” examines with nauseating precision the dark side of the Haight-Ashbury drug culture. “Fixed” is particularly brutal, and it’s all in the knowing details of San Francisco’s street drug geography: Sixteenth and Mission for heroin and works, PCP in the Tenderloin, Lower Haight for anything else.


The real rough trade comes in the last section, titled with grim irony “Flowers of Romance.” This is the pitch-black noir stuff: contemporary, ultraviolent, transgressive, and finally just hard on the stomach. David Henry Sterry’s “Confessions of a Sex Maniac” concludes the book with a tour of the city’s notorious Polk Gulch, and it can be said unequivocally that the story is accurately titled.


In the end, it’s the more restrained and heady stuff that lingers: Lu’s “Chinatown” is the collection’s true highlight, with its noir-framed examination of a specific time and place in America’s history of cultural spasms. On the other end of the scale is Robert Mailer Anderson’s “Briley Boy,” little more than a skillful prose poem of blood and rotten sex that could be just as easily set in Cleveland or Cairo—hard to know what it’s doing here at all.


And it’s here that a critical distinction can be made, in terms of evaluating just how much fun this book really is. Because, in the end, it really is about fun; if you’re into hard-boiled genre fiction, you already know what you’re looking for. These stories are noir-ish all right, every last one of them. But they’re also essentially pulp fiction, heavy on atmosphere and style, disinterested in much else. And that’s, you know, perfectly okay. Fans of the genre will be satisfied—the collection is strong overall, and suitably eclectic relative to its stated milieu. A few of the stories successfully test the elasticity of the noir tag, and nothing here truly sucks. The fun is in the details, and San Franciscans past and present will get the most out of the tour.

Glenn McDonald writes about popular culture from his home in lovely Chapel Hill, NC. His humor essays have been described as "grammatically consistent" and "remarkably frequent". He is editor of the Wait, Wait...Don't Tell Me daily news quiz at NPR.org, and a film critic at the Raleigh News & Observer. He lives virtually at www.glenn-mcdonald.com.


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