The Noirest State: Akashic Books’ New Jersey Noir

I’m reading New Jersey Noir, the latest in the award-winning series of noir anthologies put out by Akashic Books. I’m a New Jersey native—from New Shrewsbury and later New Brunswick—so I’ve got a special interest in this one. Actually, I’m surprised that it has taken so long for Akashic to get to New Jersey, since it’s probably the noirest state in the country. After all, if you’re shaped like a little inverse California sitting in the shadows of both New York and Philadelphia, you’re a state with few illusions. And that’s what we find in New Jersey Noir, people whose bubbles are burst but still get by.

I started reading it geographically with the places I knew best – Asbury Park, the Jersey shore, Long Branch, and Atlantic City, then onto Cherry Hill, Newark, Camden, Hoboken, and Jersey City. I ended in the Kittatinny Mountains with the collection’s editor, Joyce Carol Oates.

New Jersey NoirNew Jersey Noir is a bit more academic than some of the other books in the noir series, but in a good way. It’s got a thoughtful but not too professorial introduction by Oates and even some noir poetry by Robert Pinsky, Paul Muldoon, C. K. Williams, and Alicia Ostriker. I hadn’t thought of poetry as noir, but why not: there is certainly noirish music and you can almost hear Bruce Springsteen singing along in the background of some of the stories.

Because it’s noir, the stories are often about the state’s losers and outcasts, people who’ve lost their way, haven’t yet found it, or never will. There’s plenty of betrayal as sketchy small-timers cut each other off at the knees. Robert Arellano’s “Kettle Run,” set in Cherry Hill, offers up two high school misfits who run afoul of some brainless dope dealers, and Jeffrey Ford’s “Glass Eels” treats us to a couple of broke guys trying to strike it rich by poaching elvers–the three-inch-long translucent eels that sell for $1000 a pound.

Some characters meet grisly ends as they deal drugs or try to get rich quick. Others grow up a little, like Stacy and Rina in Richard Burgin’s “Atlantis,” or the morgue tech Jinx in S. A. Solomon’s “Live for Today.” There’s even a sympathetic high-priced lawyer (named Cash) in Lou Manfredo’s story of cops in Camden. Some stories have a gothic feel to them, and Halloween and bodies are recurring themes. “Excavation” by Edmund White and Michael Carroll takes us to Asbury Park on Halloween as a couple of middle-aged professors search for a missing grad student who’s fallen off the wagon. And Oates’s own story “Run Kiss Daddy” is a macabre family excursion to the fictional Paraquarry Lake in the western part of the state where a father digs up a body on his old campsite. It’s not called the Garden State for nothing.

Sometimes, though, we catch characters who don’t just get by in the world but smartly come out on top against the odds and expectations. One of my favorites was S. J. Rozan’s “New Day Newark,” where 88-year-old Miss Crawford sets the street gangs against each other in a story that brings small town gossip to the inner-city. There’s some history here too. “The Enigma of Grover’s Mill” by Bradford Morrow takes place in the fictional town where H. G. Wells’s Martians landed in 1938 and “Meadowlands Spike” by Barry Malzberg and Bill Pronzini solves the 1975 Hoffa disappearance.

What’s missing? I would’ve liked a Turnpike story and maybe something about the Ramapo Mountain people. And a story by Wallace Stroby, I think. We already need a New Jersey Noir 2 (so there, Brooklyn Noir 2), but this is a great start.

Reading New Jersey Noir is watching people learn about themselves–I kept thinking of Bruce Springsteen’s song “Growin’ up,” which has the line I strolled all alone through a fallout zone and came out with my soul untouched. Maybe that’s the heart of noir. But as far as New Jersey’s concerned, I think John Gorka got it right too in his song “I’m from New Jersey,” where he described it as a state of people who know which exit, and where [they’re] bound. New Jersey is both of these.

About Ed Battistella

Edwin Battistella’s latest book Dangerous Crooked Scoundrels was released by Oxford University Press in March of 2020.
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