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.
London-based journalist and author of Pulp Culture: Hardboiled Fiction and the Cold War; Neon Noir: Contemporary American Crime Fiction; and Heartbreak and Vine: The Fate of Hardboiled Writers in Hollywood.