Reviews

San Francisco Noir by Peter Maravelis

Glenn McDonald

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.


San Francisco Noir

Publisher: Akashic Books
Length: 300
Price: $14.95
Author: Peter Maravelis
US publication date: 2005-10
Amazon affiliate
Amazon

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.


Music

Books

Film

Recent
Film

The Dance of Male Forms in Denis' 'Beau travail'

Claire Denis' masterwork of cinematic poetry, Beau travail, is a cinematic ballet that tracks through tone and style the sublimation of violent masculine complexes into the silent convulsions of male angst.

Music

The Cradle's 'Laughing in My Sleep' Is an Off-kilter Reflection of Musical Curiosity

The Cradle's Paco Cathcart has curated a thoughtfully multifarious album. Laughing in My Sleep is an impressive collection of 21 tracks, each unapologetic in their rejection of expectations.

Music

Tobin Sprout Goes Americana on 'Empty Horses'

During the heyday of Guided By Voices, Tobin Sprout wasn't afraid to be absurd amongst all that fuzz. Sprout's new album, Empty Horses, is not the Tobin Sprout we know.

Film

'All In: The Fight for Democracy' Spotlights America's Current Voting Restrictions as Jim Crow 2.0

Featuring an ebullient and combative Stacey Abrams, All In: The Fight for Democracy shows just how determined anti-democratic forces are to ensure that certain groups don't get access to the voting booth.

Music

'Transgender Street Legend Vol. 2' Finds Left at London "At My Peak and Still Rising"

"[Pandemic lockdown] has been a detriment to many people's mental health," notes Nat Puff (aka Left at London) around her incendiary, politically-charged new album, "but goddamn it if I haven't been making some bops here and there!"

Music

Daniel Romano's 'How Ill Thy World Is Ordered' Is His Ninth LP of 2020 and It's Glorious

No, this is isn't a typo. Daniel Romano's How Ill Thy World Is Ordered is his ninth full-length release of 2020, and it's a genre-busting thrill ride.

Music

The Masonic Travelers Offer Stirring Rendition of "Rock My Soul" (premiere)

The Last Shall Be First: the JCR Records Story, Volume 1 captures the sacred soul of Memphis in the 1970s and features a wide range of largely forgotten artists waiting to be rediscovered. Hear the Masonic Travelers "Rock My Soul".

Music

GLVES Creates Mesmerizing Dark Folktronica on "Heal Me"

Australian First Nations singer-songwriter GLVES creates dense, deep, and darkish electropop that mesmerizes with its blend of electronics and native sounds on "Heal Me".

Music

Otis Junior and Dr. Dundiff Tells Us "When It's Sweet" It's So Sweet

Neo-soul singer Otis Junior teams with fellow Kentuckian Dr. Dundiff and his hip-hop beats for the silky, groovy "When It's Sweet".

Music

Lars and the Magic Mountain's "Invincible" Is a Shoegazey, Dreamy Delight (premiere)

Dutch space pop/psychedelic band Lars and the Magic Mountain share the dreamy and gorgeous "Invincible".

Film

What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .

Music

Alexander Wren's "The Earth Is Flat" Wryly Looks at Lost Love (premiere + interview)

Singer-songwriter Alexander Wren's "The Earth Is Flat" is a less a flat-earther's anthem and more a wry examination of heartache.

Music

Big Little Lions' "Distant Air" Is a Powerful Folk-Anthem (premiere)

Folk-pop's Big Little Lions create a powerful anthem with "Distant Air", a song full of sophisticated pop hooks, smart dynamics, and killer choruses.

Music

The Flat Five Invite You to "Look at the Birdy" (premiere)

Chicago's the Flat Five deliver an exciting new single that exemplifies what some have called "twisted sunshine vocal pop".

Music

Brian Bromberg Pays Tribute to Hendrix With "Jimi" (premiere + interview)

Bass giant Brian Bromberg revisits his 2012 tribute to Jimi Hendrix 50 years after his passing, and reflects on the impact Hendrix's music has had on generations.

Jedd Beaudoin
Music

Shirley Collins' ​'Heart's Ease'​ Affirms Her Musical Prowess

Shirley Collins' Heart's Ease makes it apparent these songs do not belong to her as they are ownerless. Collins is the conveyor of their power while ensuring the music maintains cultural importance.

Books

Ignorance, Fear, and Democracy in America

Anti-intellectualism in America is, sadly, older than the nation itself. A new collection of Richard Hofstadter's work from Library of America traces the history of ideas and cultural currents in American society and politics.

By the Book

Democratizing Our Data: A Manifesto (excerpt)

Just as big tech leads world in data for profit, the US government can produce data for the public good, sans the bureaucracy. This excerpt of Julia Lane's Democratizing Our Data: A Manifesto will whet your appetite for disruptive change in data management, which is critical for democracy's survival.

Julia Lane

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.