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I first began to think of Cape Cod in noir-ish terms during the fall of 1979. I say that, of course, entirely in hindsight, since noir was not then part of my lexicon. I was eighteen, just out of high school, on a year off that would later take me to South Texas and San Francisco. My best friend and I were making this journey together, and before we left, I spent a week at his parents' cottage in Wellfleet, where he was living alone, working as a cranberry picker, stockpiling money for the trip. Every day, he would go to work, and I would pretend to write a novel, staring out the windows at the gray October sky. At night, we would go to bars. The house was on a marshy point of land known as Lieutenant's Island, which was only an island at high tide. Some nights, we'd come back to find the road flooded, as if it had never been at all. I was not new to the Cape—I'd spent summers there, or parts of summers, since 1971—but this was a more conditional experience, more elemental and more charged. The same was true of the bars we frequented: dark places, their air thick with cigarette smoke and a kind of survivor's tenacity. Cape Cod in the off-season was a hunkered-down place, if not in hibernation exactly then in a strange, suspended state. In those days, before the Internet, when even cable TV was still scarce, there was nothing to do but drink.
Here, we see the inverse of the Cape Cod stereotype, with its sailboats and its presidents. Here, we see the flip side of the Kennedys, of all those preppies in docksiders eating steamers, of the whale watchers and bicycles and kites. Here, we see the Cape beneath the surface, the Cape after the summer people have gone home. It doesn't make the other Cape any less real, but it does suggest a symbiosis, in which our sense of the place can't help but become more complicated, less about vacation living than something more nuanced and profound.
This, it might be said, is also the case with noir, which is the dime-store genre that exposes our hearts of darkness, the literary equivalent of the blues. In noir, bad things happen to good people—or more accurately, possibilities narrow, until every option is compromised and no one ever wins. How one deals with that might seem a narrative question, but noir is less about the particulars of story than it is about point-of-view. As for the way such a point-of-view asserts itself, I think of it as stoic, stripped clean of illusion, like the faces I used to see in those off-season bars. In noir, we know that help is not coming, that the universe devolves to entropy, that everything goes from bad to worse. And yet, if this leaves us resigned or even hopeless, we have no choice but to deal with it as best we can. "I needed a drink, I needed a lot of life insurance, I needed a vacation, I needed a home in the country. What I had was a coat, a hat and a gun," Philip Marlowe observes in Raymond Chandler's Farewell, My Lovely, a novel that helped define the noir aesthetic, and seventy-one years later, that air of desolate clarity, of a character staring into the abyss as the abyss stares back, is still the form's defining sensibility, a cry in the darkness of a world that is, at best, apathetic, and at worst, in violent disarray.
Cape Cod Noir is an attempt to pay tribute to that perspective even as it moves beyond the traditional landscape of noir. The idea is to stretch a little, to gather writing rich in local color, while remaining true to the ethos of the genre. Here, you'll find a range of work, from the contemporary noir of Paul Tremblay and Dave Zeltserman to the more fanciful creations of Adam Mansbach and Jedediah Berry, whose stories go in unexpected directions, asking us to question our assumptions about the form. Dana Cameron's "Ardent" takes us back to the eighteenth century, while Elyssa East and William Hastings portray a Cape Cod the tourist brochures don't recognize, marked by hard luck, history, and loss. In some stories, noir operates mostly in the background, like a whisper in the air. But this, too, is as it should be, for if there is a principle at work, it is that noir has become, in its three-quarters of a century of evolution, both stylized and supple, less a way of writing than a way of seeing, less about crime or plot or killing (although there is plenty of that in these pages) than about how we live.
What I'm saying, I suppose, is that noir forces us to face things, that it cuts to the chase. It functions, to borrow a phrase from William S. Burroughs, as a kind of "NAKED Lunch—a frozen moment when everyone sees what is on the end of every fork." We expect this when it comes to cities, where noir grew up during the Depression, or in the rural corners staked out by authors from Edward Anderson in the 1930s to Daniel Woodrell in the present day. Still, what my experiences on the Cape suggest is that noir is everywhere. You can see it in the desperate excitations of the summer people, the desire to make their vacations count. You can see it in the tension of the year-rounders, who rely on the seasonal trade for survival, even as they must tolerate having their communities overrun. You can see it in the history of the place; the Pilgrims landed first at Provincetown, after all. And after Labor Day, once the tourists have gone home, it is still a lot like it has always been: desolate, empty in the thin gray light, with little to do in the slow winter months. You drink, you brood, you wait for summer, when the cycle starts all over again.
When I was a kid, and first exploring my little corner of the Cape, I used to spend a lot of time alone. I would ride my bike or walk for hours, watching all the summertime activities, keeping myself a bit apart. Even then, I had the sense that there was more going on than I was seeing on the surface, that there were promises that had been left unkept. This, I've come to realize, is true everywhere, but it has a different feeling in a summer place. For me, Cape Cod is a repository of memory: forty summers in the same house will do that to you. But it is also a landscape of hidden tensions, which rise up when we least anticipate. In part, this has to do with social aspiration, which is one of the things that brought my family, like many others, to the Cape. In part, it has to do with social division, which has been a factor since at least the end of the nineteenth century, when the summer trade began. There are lines here, lines that get crossed and lines that never get crossed, the kinds of lines that form the web of noir. Call it what you want—summer and smoke is how I think of it—but that's the Cape Cod at the center of this book.
David L. Ulin March 2011
Excerpted from Cape Cod Noir by David L. Ulin Copyright © 2011 by Akashic Books. Excerpted by permission of Akashic Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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(This review was originally published in full at The Cult.)
When I think of cities that inspire noir, Cape Cod is certainly not at the top of that list. I think of New York, Chicago, Baltimore even, but never would I have thought of Cape Cod. In the ongoing series by Akashic Books, they've visited almost fifty cities across the United States, and around the world. It's a compelling series to say the least. Once I started to get into this collection, though, I understood the appeal of Cape Cod. Any place where you have the rich surrounded by the middle and working-class, the permanent residents dealing with entitled tourists, there's bound to be a simmering pot of angst and violence waiting to overflow.
Editor David L. Ulin speaks to the concept of noir in the opening of this book, and the reasons that Cape Cod came to mind. What is noir to him?:
".that air of desolate clarity, of a character staring into the abyss as the abyss stares back.a cry in the darkness of a world that is, as best, apathetic, and at worst, in violent disarray."
Twelve pages into this collection of thirteen stories by authors such as Paul Tremblay, Dave Zeltserman, Jedidiah Berry and many other dark visionaries, I found myself nodding my head. David gets it, I thought. This is going to be good. But how is he going to make this work in Cape Cod? He elaborates:
".my experiences on the Cape suggest.that noir is everywhere. You can see it in the desperate excitations of the summer people, the desire to make their vacations count. You can see it in the tension of the year-rounders, who rely on the seasonal trade for survival, even as they must tolerate having their communities overrun.And after Labor Day, once the tourists have gone home, it is still a lot like it has always been: desolate, empty in the thin gray light, with little to do in the slow winter months. You drink, you brood, you wait for summer, when the cycle starts all over again."
Sounds like noir to me. I was sold.
What kind of noir can you expect to find in this collection? It's a wide range of stories for sure. You have ex-cons out on parole trying to stay out of trouble, some of them on a reform school island, chopping wood and ducking bird poop. You have variations on revenge-for being fired, for taking a father away, for spouting off at the mouth. You have a series of pictures that add up to a realization, and bizarre puppet shows where a witch disappears at the end-the flesh and blood one, not the puppets. Whether you are in Martha's Vineyard or Hyannisport, Sandwich or Buzzards Bay, if you gaze out into the darkness and scan the choppy water there are bodies to be found-violence and regret filling the air.
When it comes to noir, or really, any good story, the best way to get my attention is with an opening line, or narrative hook, that really piques my interest. This one is from "Bad Night in Hyannisport by Seth Greenland:
"I was dead. That was the main thing. And I never saw it coming."
And this one, from "Twenty-Eight Scenes for Neglected Guests" by Jedediah Berry:
"In the illustrations of the crime scene, the full moon is high and small over the sea, shining through a halo of clouds."
(Full review continued over at The Cult.)
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