Friday, September 30, 2016

It's Algren Time Again

From "Single Exit" (first published in 1947) in Entrapment by Nelson Algren:

"He walked down endless flights, turning at last into the hotel entrance to the bar. Juke music funneled out through the entrance in a roaring bass, beating out 'Blues in the Night' in a vocal that rang hoarsely, like a manacled madman's voice full of hoarse glee at his own pain. Beneath it, standing in the doorway, Katz heard the fast and slippered shuffle of the same shoes he had heard whispering so lonesomely away, down an uncarpeted hall and out into the lonesome street. A soft-shoe shuffle! Would there be applause to greet him? And many friends? He brushed down his coat and hurried in. As the juke died out on a troubled whine.

The dancers all had gone. The singers all were still. There was no one but a sweatered fellow placing chairs along the bar.

Katz stood shifting restlessly from one foot to another, trying to down his disappointment at forever, all his life, arriving just a moment too late for everything.

'Closing up?' he asked diffidently.

The fellow moved on toward the back without answering, drawing chairs soundlessly across the floor, tossing them slowly, without effort, along the bar, so that no matter how carelessly he moved, they fell, softly, into neat rows, and stayed so strangely motionless, all along the bar.

Above the bar mirror a neon kitten flashed two suggestions off and on, in bright and blood-red steel:


Why doesn't anyone write like this anymore?

Maybe there are those who do, but, if so, they are most likely on the margins of the literary world. Because most writers, including crime writers, haven't the nerve to put themselves out there like Algren did, while, at the same time, doing so with all their heart and soul. Not, at any rate, if they intend to sell books or, for that matter, get published. Of course, there are examples of extreme literature, but it's usually pretty sterile stuff in comparison, too ironic or pretending to be tough and in your face. Few are willing to be as overtly political, literary and as cantankerous as Algren. Always concerned about those at the bottom end of society. This even though Algren believed that his work had no effect on the culture. Nevertheless, Algren won the National Book Award for Man With a Golden Arm and was, for a while, a best selling writer.

Algren, based on the stories, essays, poems, prose poems and fragments of a novel in Entrapment, and much of his other work, could be arrested for incitement to intelligence, much less riot. In fact, it's almost impossible to comprehend that Algren could have been so popular during the 1950s and early 1960s. We have Otto, Sinatra, Kim to partially thank for that, though Algren's popularity started before that. Yet Man With a Golden Arm was such a mess of a movie, at least compared to the book, that it ruined the novel for many subsequent readers. Nor was Walk on the Wildside, with a script by John Fante (aided by Ben Hecht), much better. On the other hand, it's hard to imagine how anyone might be able to capture Algren on film, that is without sacraficing so much of the literary quality of his novels. Maybe it's just that Algren, with all his ruminations and characters who move from the comedy to tragedy, sweet wise yet so innocent, can't be filmed.

Algren was part of a generation of writers that included James T. Farrell (in fact, there is a short piece in Entrapment which constitutes Algren's apology for dissing Farrell on ideological grounds and recognising that, though Farrell was not a great stylist, Studs Lonigan affected a generation of people), John Dos Passos, Richard Wright whose last remaining personage was probably Studs Terkel. They were all political radicals with a sense of the street and literary enough to hold their own with more established types. Algren has been compared favorably to Faulkner, and one can see why. Okay, so maybe he's more erratic, but at his best he is every bit Faulkner's equal.

I might be alone in thinking his early writing, particularly his short stories, constitutes his best work. Not that I didn't enjoy his later novels, but they are just a bit too contrived for me. I like him best when he is in Whitman/Farrell mode, railing against the rich and the stupid and the reactionary, and doing it with his heart and soul.

Entrapment- the title comes from Algren's unpublished final novel, a semi-autobiographical work about the love-sick- is already one of my favorite books of the year. One wishes Algren, capable of breaking your heart with a single phrase or sentence, had been able to finish the book. But, as the editors, who have done an exemplary job in putting this collection together, say, it was far too close to the bone. Likewise, I wish he were around today to comment on what was going on in the world.

Friday, August 19, 2016

New York Noir

“Cities are made of desires and fears.”
Italo Calvino

In that not so distant era of mean streets, dangerous dames  and post-war angst, New York was known as the noir capital of the world, containing all the  ingredients- neon lights, gangsters, corrupt city officials, fast-talking newspapermen, lost souls and an avaricious skyline- associated with the genre.  Though the period in which classic film noir flourished lasted only  some fifteen years, it was enough time for the Golem to turn into the flaneur, and for the Thin Man to exist alongside Mike Hammer, Dutch Schultz and The Shadow. This in an era  when New York was still considered the most, rather than the least, American of cities, and when the country, moving from the  politics of the Depression to that of the Cold War, had assumed a position of unprecedented power, accompanied by fears of reds under the bed, the atomic bomb and economic insecurity.  

                No other city has been as noir as New York. And no other city in film noir is like New York.  It was not only where  the Old World met the New World, but where German Expressionism met hardboiled Hollywood melodrama. Romanticised it might have been, but it’s depiction drew on reality. With its cultural mix and nightlife centered in hotspots like Times Square, 42nd Street and Harlem, Gotham  would be associated with an assortment of conditions specific to the genre, whether paranoia (Phantom Lady), claustrophobia (The Window), agoraphobia (Nightfall),  vertigo (Side Street),  alienation (The Gangster), or despair (Edge of Doom). 


So evocative is New York of that era that it was able to push film’s narrative to disastrous conclusions, and even, as in The Naked City,  assume the role of  protagonist. At the same time,  New York noir, for all its features and faults, has never been overly reliant on an all-knowing detective or tough-guy perspective; it’s noir atmosphere has been enough, relating less to a wise-guy  behind the wheel of a car than to the pedestrian left in the hands of fate. Since, in New York the ambler is king, something unfortunate is more than likely to befall that person set in their belief that their assigned role comes with an automatic right-of-way.  No wonder Albert Camus, visiting the Big Apple for th"e first  time  in 1946,  said, “Everybody looks like they’ve stepped out of a B-film.” True,  all New Yorkers appear to be  part of their own low-budget noir narrative, if not guilty of crimes they perhaps have yet to commit. As Jerome Charyn, author of novels featuring New York Jewish cop Issac Siddel, writes in Maria’s Girls (1994), “Psychosis is everywhere, in your armpit, under your shoe...How do you measure a man’s rage? Either we behave like robots, or we kill.”

As Charyn would maintain, noir New York has long been an immigrant’s city.  Protagonists like John Garfield in Force of Evil, Richard Widmark in Kiss of Death, Farley Granger in Edge of Doom and Richard Conte in Cry of the City  come from specific communities, while petty crook Richard Widmark in Pick Up on South Street and enforcer Robert‡ Ryan in On Dangerous Ground deal with these communities on a daily basis. Yet immigrants were often cosmeticised for the sake of mass consumption. Abe Polansky, a native New Yorker and blacklist victim, would alter the Jewish names in Ira Wolfert’s capitalist-indicting novel, Tucker’s People, on which  Force of Evil is based. While in Gordon Wiles’s 1947 The Gangster, any outward sign of the Jewishness permeating Daniel Fuchs’s Brooklyn-set novel Low Company, from which that film derived, was conveniently exorcised. Blacks were even more peripheral, a rare exception being Wise’s 1959 Odds Against Tomorrow in which Harry Belafonte, the most acceptable African-American in show business, plays a Manhattan nightclub singer who takes part in a small-town bank robbery.  

Yet it was through multicultural New York that European noir directors  Robert Siodmak, Billy Wilder, Otto Premminger, Fritz Lang and Edgar Ulmer  travelled  on their way to Hollywood, carrying with them ideas aÂbout old world montage and mise-en-scéne. In turn, New York would  leave  its mark, leading to Big Apple films like  Wilder’s Lost Weekend,  Lang’s Woman in the Window, Siodmak’s Cry of the City and Premminger’s Where the Sidewalk Ends.  And it was during a visit to Manhattan  that Ulmer decamped in Harlem to make  low-budget films about Yiddish and African American life. There he learned enough about American culture to become a Poverty Row pro, directing Detour and Ruthless, both of them partly set in New York. While Lang, after visiting the city for the first time in 1924, was so affected by its skyline that he decided to make Metropolis. A decade later, Jean-Paul Sartre gazed at the Empire State Building and the Chrysler Building¥ “pointing vainly toward the sky,” and concluded that “New York is about to acquire a history, that it already has its ruins.”

These ruins seem like they have always figured in noir images of the melting pot known as New York, the seeds of which were present in narratives like Stephen Crane’s  “Maggie: A Girl of the Streets” (1896),  Dos Passos’s Manhattan Transfer (1925),  Mike Gold’s Jews Without Money (1930), as well as in Weegee’s 1940s street photographs.  Weegee’s work roughly parallels the history of film noir, influencing The Naked City, whose title derives from his 1945 book of New York photographs. Illustrating his relationship to the genre, Weegee would appear in Wise’s The Set Up (1949), a boxing tale in which he plays a ringside timekeeper, and a film that would inspire former Look  photographer Stanley Kubrick when it came to making The Killer’s Kiss (1955). As for the ruins suggested by Weegee and others, their extent and historical significance  would not be  realized for some  years to come. 

In fact, film noir might never have existed without New York.  After all, film, much less film noir, was born in New York City, where it thrived until World War One. Though New York studio pioneers Zukor, Fox,  Goldwyn, Laemmle, and Mayer, had vacated the city by the late 1940s, the financial backbone of the industry remained in Manhattan. Hollywood backlots might have been three-thousand miles away, but New York noir was still in fashion, which meant studios had to send photographers and production designers across the continent to record sites vso they  could be replicated in Tinseltown. In Sweet Smell of Success (1957), the interior shots of Gotham watering holes like Toots Shor and The Elysian Room were recreated on Stage 8 at the Goldwyn Studios in Hollywood. This, along with the film’s location shots, added to the ambience of Alexander MacKendrick’s savage critique of the world of tabloid journalism. With a script by Clifford Odets which pretty much deconstructs Ernest Lehman’s novella, the film presents a different side of the city from the tenements and working-class neighborhoods depicted in Ted Tetzlaff’s The Window (1949) or John Berry’s He Ran All the Way (1951).  

As suburbanisation became the 1950s norm, the Big Apple pedestrian was  eclipsed by the Sunbelt car owner, quickening the pace if not the pulse of the  narrative. Essential to, but separate from, the rest of the country, New York would become the city middle-America loves to hate, its streets portrayed as darker and more dangerous than they might actually be.  While some believed New York to have  held the promise that was once America, others saw it as a vertical dystopia, not quite American, its height indicating its vulnerability,  and, with citizens living on top of, rather than alongside, one-another, a sign that profits will invariably precede people. 

All this feeds into the city’s noir character, revised in the 1990s by Andrew Vacchs, whose  over-the-top  crime fiction seems to  imply that New York is mostly populated by criminals, muggers, hustlers, psychos, perverts, and, by now, terrorists. But New York noir, particularly since the early 1970s, has long sought to exploit pathology and fear of the other. This is the case in neo-noir films, from Seigel’s Coogan’s Bluff (1968) and Winner’s Death Wish (1974) to Scorssese’s After Hours (1985), and derives partly from social classes rubbing shoulders with one another,  not to mention the failure of trickle-down economics, and animosities created as one group replaces another in a given neighborhood. Of course, this also makes New York an ideal setting for narratives regarding disparities, unease, chance encounters  and the vagaries of fate.  


As the years progressed, New York noir would be depicted in ever more paranoid terms. And why not? For its recent past includes not only terrorist attacks, but riots, racial antagonisms, zero tolerance, bankruptcy, gentrification and extreme urban-planning. Consequently, one  can track the fate of New York noir, and New York itself, by following the circumstances of protagonists from the classic era to later  films like The Warriors, Taxi Driver, King of New York, New Jack City or 25th Hour. Or noir fiction, from Cornell Woolrich, author of  narratives like Phantom Lady, The Window and Deadline at Dawn, to Chester Himes’s Harlem detective novels; from Wolfert’s Tucker’s People  to Nick Tosches’s Cut Numbers, Paul Auster’s City of Glass and Don DeLillo’s Cosmopolis. The classic era may be over, but New York’s relationship to noir remains no less pertinent. With the post-9-11 era assuming ever nastier  proportions, it’s understandable that, in this era of perpetual fear, some will opt  for a more romanticised, if not innocent, view of the city.

Tuesday, August 09, 2016

At the End of the Road: Unforgiving Years by Victor Serge

It could be argued that Unforgiving Years by Victor Serge (NYRB) is one of the most modernist of spy novels. What can't be argued is that there could possibly be another spy novel so saturated in paranoia. Serge was born in poverty in Brussels in 1899 to émigré Russians after fleeing the Czar. He became a political activist and was jailed before arriving  in Russia in 1919 to support the Bolshevik Revolution. Climbing the hierarchy of the Comintern, he fell foul of Stalin, went to prison, followed by exile from the Soviet Union. Unforgiving Years would be Serge's final novel, destined, as far as he was concerned, for the bottom drawer. And you can see why. It's a dark- perhaps his darkest-  and most extreme book. Paranoid, unrelenting, brutal, poetic, surreal, hallucinatory, the book moves from pre-war Paris to Leningrad under siege to Berlin during the last days of the war to Mexico (this last part reads like a B. Traven story). Serge's translator, Richard Greeman, in his  introduction, suggests that D, the main character, is based not only on Serge himself, but on two others: a defector- in fact, the head of Stalin’s apparatus- Walter Krivitsky, who met with Serge in Paris; and Soviet agent, Ignace Reiss, whose Trotskyism led to his murder by Stalinist agents was he was about to meet  Serge in Switzerland.  Krivitsky would later die in Washington hotel room  under mysterious circumstances.

One might also view  Serge's novel as an antidote to Celine's Long Day's Journey...,  particularly when it comes to the horrors of war. But, of course, Serge's novel delves even further into the shape-shifting psychology of that period.  Translated into English for the first time, Unforgiving Years tells the story of two revolutionaries, D and his friend Daria, as they approach, endure and survive World War II. It's a world in which no one can trust anyone, and circumstances alter personalities and allegiances. No wonder there's so much paranoia. But what's surprising is how much Serge's writing changed over the years. One can only suppose that the war altered the way he viewed the world, and so had to find a form to fit that view. I would also recommend his earlier work, such as  The Case of Comrade Tulayev (reprinted by NYRB as well), about the reign of terror in the Soviet Union. Like Unforgiving Years, it was one of his last books, and another one that Serge never sought  to publish during lifetime. Though, for me, Unforgiving Years is the more impressive of the two. It's the sort of novel that contemporary writers in the genre would die for. After all, Unforgiving Years is the real thing, a view of a world in ruins derived from lived experience. Anyone after a post-apocalyptic novel should start here.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Nostalgia For the Future: Central Station by Lavie Tidhar

I'm willing to bet James Sallis would appreciate Lavie Tidhar's novels. That is, given, Sallis's fondness for writers who cross genres, influenced by those  sci-fi writers of the past, who, like their hardboiled counterparts, published their work in cheap paperback editions and magazines. Not to mention a fondness for writers who, in saying something different, are laws unto themselves. No doubt about it, Tidhar delights in pushing the envelope labelled contemporary science fiction to the hilt. Almost two years after reading it, I still find myself raving to people about his remarkable His A Man Lies Dreaming (my review of which you can read here). And most recently Central Station, a novel that's appeared in bits and pieces in various magazines over the last few years. Likewise, it's a bit of a  jigsaw puzzle of book that reads like a prose poem based perhaps on some barely recognisable or remembered mythology. Perhaps something along the lines of  a 21st century version of Theodore Sturgeon's More Than Human crossed with Tanith Lee poetic-realism. Based on the four Tidhar novels I've read over the past couple years, his work seems to get better and better. And even though I've come to expect a certain range and unexpectedness, Central Station was still full of surprises. But, then, that's been the case since his 2011 novel Osama (I've yet to read his daunting but no doubt readable steampunk trilogy The Bookman Histories), the title alone demonstrating the author's willingness  to go places  few others would dare. One gets the feeling that Tidhar, who grew up on a socialist kibbutz in Israel, followed by long spells in South Africa and elsewhere before ending up in London where he now resides, couldn't be dull if he tried.

Actually, Tidhar's London connection is relevant when it comes to Central Station. Because in many ways, the novel is radical enough to be a kind of throwback to those sci-fi outlaws editing and  edited and contributing to the London-based New Worlds back in the 1960s. That is, writing with one foot in the future and another in the present. In Tidhar's case, he accomplishes this through a  narrative that revolves around a small set of people living in a future city situated between Tel Aviv and Jaffa where virtual reality pretty much the reality.

"[That] vast space port which rises over the twin cityscapes of Arab Jaffa, Jewish Tel Aviv. It happened amidst the arches and the cobblestones, a stone-throw from the sea; you could still smell the salt and the tar in the air, and watch, at sunrise, the swoop and turn of solar kites and their winged surfers in the air."

Just as contemporary populations have gravitated  towards urban centres, or, more recently, European safe harbours, so those in Tidhar's novel have gravitated towards Central Station, living in its shadow, presumably for purposes of protection, communication, access and survival. It's also where all travel emanates from. At the same time, the surrounding bazaar-like streets remain old-world in appearance and atmosphere. Though a country unevenly divided between those with the data and those without, it is, nevertheless, a multinational, cross-cultural society-  Chinese, Israelis, Africans, Vietnamese, Somalians, Thais, Arabs, and other aliens jostle side-by-side. It's a world in which children are made as much as born, products of cowboy genetic engineering. Where distant wars, to whatever degree forgotten,  constitute part of everyone's DNA. Where ex-soldiers dispense mind altering drugs and children communicate with the touch of a finger. And where the population is, for the most part, linked by node implants and the super-internet-like Conversation. Into this diverse, inter-related and claustrophobic mix, Tidhar throws a data-vampire infected by the Nosferatu Code who sucks memory from her victims instead of blood; an African book dealer who loves the vampire almost as much as does pulp paperback fiction; the owner of a Shebeen, whose adopted son- his actual mother having succumbed to an ailment, perhaps culturally-induced, called Crucifixation- exudes strange powers;  a god artist who, in between creating deities out of thin air, performs cicumcisions; a robot priest; a rag and bone man called The Lord of Discarded Things; and  a doctor who oversees births and has daddy problems, who returns to Central Station from Mars, pursued by the vampire, discovers his father has a dementia-like mind plague.

As with A Man Lies Dreaming, Tidhar has created a poetic, dream-like, even nostalgic, world that, however foreign, is all too imaginable. Which might well be the hallmark of any good science fiction story. Beneath it all Central Station yearns for a place that once was, or maybe never was save for someplace deep within the author imagination... And like a disturbing and complicated dream, it's a novel that, like A Man Lies Dreaming, will haunt any appreciative reader long after he or she has turned its final page.  

"Once it had all been orange groves... he remembered thinking that, as he went out of the doors of Central Station, on his arrival, back on Earth, the gravity confusing and uncomfortable, into the hot and humid air outside. Standing under the eaves, he breathed in deeply, gravity pulled him down but he didn't care. It smelled just like he remembered, and the oranges, vanished or not, were still there, the famed Jaffa oranges that grew here when all this, not Tel Aviv, not Central Station, existed, when it was all orange groves, and sand, and sea..."

Monday, June 20, 2016

Where the Past Is Buried: Willnot by James Sallis

It doesn't take much to make me want to devour any James Sallis novel that might come my way.  And Willnot, his latest, certainly does not make me want to alter that opinion. So what that, even for a Sallis novel, it's farther away than ever from what one normally thinks of as crime fiction. That's okay with me. After all, we live in a criminal culture, so anything that exposes that fact or digs into the culture, constitutes, as far as I'm concerned, crime fiction. On the other hand, Sallis has always used crime fiction, as any writer of his calibre might, to talk about other things- finding one's place in the world, how we seek some kind of community despite feelings of estrangement, finding solace in literature, music and relationships, no matter how transitory those things might be.

And Willnot is yet another Sallis title that, like Drive/Driven, suggests a grammatical pun, if not parsing. Here it's not just present and past that matter, but a contraction that goes right to the  heart of domesticity. But let's not be too hasty or silly in calling the book and town it's named after Won't, even if that contraction expresses the condensed small-town reality, the obstreperousness and marginality of those living in what appears to be such a convivial atmosphere.  It's in this town in some unnamed state that  Dr Lamar Hale and his partner Richard, a schoolteacher, reside. The book, sprinkled, as often the case, with references to Sallis's favourite  sci-fi writers and hardboiled writers, opens with Lamar called out to deliver his verdict on a grave uncovered on the outskirts of town containing several bodies. At any rate, that's simply the hook on which Sallis hangs his novel, and not the commencement of some tough-guy crime narrative. But, all the same, prescient, not only about what's to come, but the fact that this is a novel about what lies just beneath the surface- whether a grave or history itself- and how everything impinges on everything else. As for Lamar, what better investigator than a doctor; that is if  one's intention is to investigate the human condition and that thin ice that separates  past and present, life and death, sickness and health, fact and fiction. With a license to speculate as well as to cure,  a doctor here is the ideal substitute for the perceptive private eye now so familiar to readers that, exceptional circumstances aside, one  winces whenever they appear on the scene.

And a word must be said about the way Sallis  treats Lamar and Richard's relationship. Which he does this with  a  matter-of-factness befitting the era we live in, and  a casual humanity that reminded me of the way the late Kent Haruf treats his characters in novels like Plainsong and Eventide.  At other times, Willnot's wit comes across as  a stripped-down, albeit more meditative, version of one of Andrew Coburn suburban noir novels like Voices in the Dark or No Way Home. And like Haruf's Holt, Colorado, or Coburn's Bensington, Massachusetts, Sallis's Willnot is not quite the idyllic place it appears to be. Yes, it's a place that attracts odd but decent people in search of tranquility, community and small town life. But, like any place else, it too is  affected by outside events and circumstances, be it war, austerity, malaise, or the whims and crimes of others. Still, anyone who stops off in Willnot, whether house hunter or female FBI agent, can't help but be affected by the town's somewhat dated ethos.

Willnot is, in fact, an extraordinary book, not just about place, but the interaction between past, present and future. So one moves lightly over a terrain that includes those graves, pulp sci-fi books published by Lamar's father (in a twist on the usual parent-child relationship, Lamar's dad is disappointed when his son announces that he wants to be a doctor rather than a writer), and the past,  including a study of early American utopian communities by Richard's  twelve year-old student. At the centre of it all, smack in the present- though he does have penchant for meandering  through his past- is Lamar, dispensing information, making diagnoses, performing minor operations and writing prescriptions, while Richard performs teacherly tasks, while joking in the face of a world rapidly melting around him. Meanwhile, a veteran of the Iraq or Afghan war, whom Lamar once took under his wing some years before, returns, bringing the war with him.  As customary in a Sallis novel, there are various casualties and any number  of aphorisms pointing the way, perhaps the most fitting being one not included, Gramsci's The point of modernity is to live a life without illusions without becoming disillusioned.  This might be one of the saddest of Sallis's novels. But, in its recognition of the fragility of everyday life, it also just might be one of his most humane. And maybe one of his best. As the narrator says, "Going on is what it's all about."

(a version of this review can be found at the Crime Time website)

Friday, May 20, 2016

The First Novel Is Poetry...: Sunset City by Melissa Ginsburg; Gravesend by William Boyle

Ever wonder how Megan Abbott's precocious teenagers turn out? You can catch a glimpse of one or two in Sunset City, a first-person narrative by poet Melissa Ginsburg.  Set in Houston, the novel centres on Charlotte, a barista, whose life is turned upside-down when she is told by a handsome cop that her  childhood friend, Danielle, has been brutally murdered. Both Charlotte and Danielle come from dysfunctional families. Charlotte having grown up in an apartment with a ill, often drug-addled single mother, Danielle with a wealthy, self-obsessed, single mother. Since then they have more or less gone their separate ways, Danielle having served time for drugs, then acting in porn films, Charlotte still dependent on others, casually consuming drugs, going with he flow, and not sure the degree to which she is being used by others. After Danielle's death, Charlotte buddies up with Danielle's best friend, and others in her circle, her life, despite the intervention of the cop investigating the case, spinning out of control. Charlotte might be in her early to midt-wenties, but this is still a coming-of-age novel, and filled with some excellent passages and descriptions. Such as the following:
"I thought about the dust-on top of the fridge, and other dust that I couldn't see-fan blades, window frames. I imagined I could hear it gathering, a tiny army collecting in troops. When my mom was alive the house was always dusty, a mess everywhere, especially around her favourite chair. On bad days she might accidentally knock over a glass of Diet Coke and not even clean it up. Right now I could relate."
Compulsive reading for sure- think Megan Abbott crossed with Sara Gran,  I still found myself wanting Ginsburg to delve even deeper into her characters and subject matter. I kept thinking- and perhaps this is unfair- how the late noir poet Lynda Hull might have handled Ginsburg's characters and subject matter. But that's a minor criticism, because this is an excellent first novel written with a poet's eye.

Even grittier and more evocative of place is William Boyle's Gravesend. It's the sort of book that one might find buried beneath the rubble of an early Springsteen song. In inhabiting that working-class terrain situated between Selby and Pelecanos, Gravesend is a street-level portrait of suburban Brooklyn working class, Italian-Catholic life in an increasingly homogenised world. There are at least three interweaving stories here. One belongs to Alessandra, having recently returned from Los Angeles, where she'd been pursuing an acting career, to look after her father; another belonging to Conway, also caring for his father while trying desperately seeking revenge on Ray Boy, the man who some years and a prison sentence earlier, had caused his brother's death; and the third belong to troubled teenager Eugene, Billy Ray Boy's nephew, who looks to his uncle as a role model while trying to make his mark on the world. Every bit as poetic as Sunset City, Gravesend conveys character and place as well as most seasoned writers, and with a fresh, heart-wrenching reality.
"After hanging up, she just stared at herself, feeling like she'd run her life far off the rails and wondering if she should just wallow in the mess at the bottom of things. Drink every day at The Wrong Number. Say to hell with work. Become one of these neighbourhood ghosts, old allies in wrinkled black clothes that just skeleton around on feet like broken shopping cart wheels. When it got real bad, she could just dig in trash bins for bottles like the old Chinese, haul them down to Waldbaum's for drinking money, live int his house until her father died and they took it away from her and then she could go to a home, the one over on Cropsey, where she'd wear Salvation Army clothes and lose her hair and teeth in the sink. An actress? Forget it. Once maybe, in another city and another time. Just wispy bones and yellowing skin now. The old boozer that kids throw rocks at for kicks."
These are both first novels, and reading them made me wonder if it's true that a novelist- particularly a writer of noir fiction- writes his or her first book in a kind of fevered dream that resembles, and sometimes is, poetry, followed by books inevitably written with a more conscious and prosaic eye.  I hope not, because it's the former that I like when I read noir fiction and which both these books so ably demonstrate. Needless to say,  I'm looking forward to reading what comes next.