Writers and Buffalo go together. They always have and always will.
A couple of classic writers in our literature lived here with their families – Mark Twain as a young married man when he edited the Buffalo Express and his family was bedeviled by illness, F. Scott Fitzgerald as a school boy (he went to Nardin, which was then, as now, coed.)
It has always galled some Bostonians and Manhattanites that A.R. Gurney’s plays are based on the WASP upper class of Buffalo, not of Boston or Manhattan. Sloan Wilson wrote “The Man In the Gray Flannel Suit” when he taught creative writing at the University at Buffalo.
When Albert Cook became the chairman of the UB English Department, it was, for a while, Great Writers on Parade in Buffalo – Leslie Fiedler, John Barth and Robert Creeley who came to live here, Charles Olson’s ideas took root here, and those passing through included everyone from Basil Bunting and LeRoi Jones (before he became Amiri Baraka) and Lionel Abel to Dwight Macdonald, Donald Barthelme and Anthony Burgess. Nobel Prize winner J.M. Coetzee was once a junior member of the UB English Department.
Fine writers live here still.
But what we’ve not quite seen before – at least not in this way – is the shockingly superb new anthology called “Buffalo Noir” which will officially be published by Akashic Press on Tuesday (186 pages, $15.95 paperback original.)
What we have in this anthology brilliantly edited by Ed Park and Briigid Hughes are 12 writers with strong Buffalo connections writing dark tales specifically for this anthology and set in Buffalo.
The city, then, is everywhere you look in “Buffalo Noir,” from the towers of the Richardson Complex of the Buffalo Psychiatric Center on Elmwood in Christine Milletti’s “Dr. Kirkbride’s Moral Treatment Plan” to the eccentric one-block residential enclaves of Allentown in Gary Earl Ross’ droll “Good Neighbors.”
So are Buffalo figures. Rick James – yes, Rick James – figures prominently in no less than two of these stories: Connie Porter’s punningly titled “Peace Bridge” (despite the title, set on the East Side) and John Wray and Brooke Costello’s “Chicken Noodle’s Night Out,” which migrates from the Anchor Bar to one of Buffalo’s historically fabled after-hours joints.
Unquestioned literary stars from Buffalo are prominent in “Buffalo Noir” – Joyce Carol Oates and Lawrence Block. Both have been important to Akashic’s terrific “Noir” series anthologies before but not representing the community from which they both emerged as writers. Perennial Nobel contender Oates previously edited a “New Jersey Noir” anthology for Akashic and universally acclaimed crime fiction “grandmaster” Block edited no less than two volumes of “Manhattan Noir.”
As co-editor Park explains in his introduction, “Noir, of course, is French for black. We’ve used it for over half a century to indicate atmosphere – a mix of mystery and grit, even a certain glamour applied to a tale of crime and violence.”
It came originally from a series of American novels published in France in the ’40s as “Series Noir” but came, most famously, to refer to certain films made from them, mostly American, whose reputation grew over the years to become examples of some of the greatest creations of our national imagination – movies like Howard Hawks’ “The Big Sleep,” Billy Wilder’s “Double Indemnity,” Jacques Tourneur’s “Out of the Past,” and John Huston’ “The Asphalt Jungle.”
Anyone expecting that kind of polished obsidian gleam from the stories in “Buffalo Noir” has come to the wrong place. All that darkness is there, but the gleam has been replaced by a roughness and wit gloriously identifiable from our lakeside city whose Michael Morgulis, heroically, made an immortal T-shirt emblazoned with the motto “Buffalo – City of No Illusions.”
When your greatest pop figure of modern times is Rick James, you’re an anthology of no illusions in the making.
And that’s what “Buffalo Noir” so splendidly is.
Block’s contribution is one of his Ehrengraf stories about his decidedly sinister fictional attorney whose office is in Niagara Square and whose case takes him to Nottingham Terrace. Oates’ story “Valentine” (the only one previously published) is a hallucinatory tale of celebration in a snow-covered Delaware Park.
The stories that impressed me most in the book are, by far, from writers not widely familiar: Kim Chinquee’s splendid mini-Gothic “Hand” and Dimitri Anastasopoulos’ wildly unexpected fictionalization of the very real “Bubble Man of Allentown.”
Anastasopoulos was born in Athens, teaches writing at UB and writes in his story something that suffices as an ideal blurb for the reader’s advance copy of the anthology: “Buffalo had changed. Life was more about corruption and lies, an aesthetic that the best comic authors would admit into their pristine universe. If art could be moral and full of valor, it could also be perverse, debauched and destructive, in the best ways possible.”
Gary Earl Ross’ “Good Neighbors” fits solidly into the book even though it resembles nothing so much as a story Alfred Hitchcock might have adapted in his classic old half-hour TV show from the ’50s. Equally eccentric in totally different ways are Park’s collection of Sabres lore in “The Odd” and “It’s Only for Forever” by Buffalo-born TV auteur Tom Fontana (“Homicide,” “St. Elsewhere,” “Oz”).
“Falling On Ice” is by Lissa Marie Redmond, a working Buffalo cop currently in the Department’s Cold Case Squad and married to Don Redmond, another member of the Buffalo Police Department.
All that is ready for the reader’s discovery, which I heartily recommend.
When editor in chief and publisher Johnny Temple’s Akashic Books began the urban “Noir” series with “Brooklyn Noir” in 2004, he writes that “from the start, the heart and soul of Akashic Books has been dark, provocative, well-crafted tales from the disenfranchised. I learned early on that writings from outside the mainstream coincide with a mood and spirit of noir and are composed by authors whose life circumstances often place them in environs composed of crime.”
That applies very little to the writers of “Buffalo Noir” but it’s a dark but very happy surprise between paper covers.
Story topics: Buffalo Noir