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Noir and Texas link 14 previously unpublished stories—two first-rate, the rest not bad.
Done to a turn, Claudia Smith's "Catgirl" is a banality-of-evil story centering on four children, girls, aged about 10, and the charismatic mom of two of them. They're nice kids. Maybe the mom drinks more than she should, but essentially these are the people next door. What they get up to, however, you wouldn't want to think of as neighborly. Smith's prose is controlled, shrewdly understated, and the effect is unsettling and shivery. Milton T. Burton's "Cherry Coke" is a tricky little tale about a stranger who wanders into a poker game one night. Coke is the kind of player who can't seem to lose. True enough, he never actually takes a game apart, but at the end of every session he'll pocket winnings. It's the kind of thing, of course, that won't make him universally beloved. Inevitably, there's a confrontation, a nicely staged climax and a satisfyingly enigmatic ending. As for the remainder, they're all determinedly noir, including workaday efforts by well-known figures like Joe R. Lansdale and James Crumley. Coeditor Bobby Byrd contributes a story that fills out the card.
Part of a geographically oriented noir fiction anthology series that began in 2004 with Brooklyn Noir and now includes over 40 more, including Miami, Las Vegas, San Francisco, Moscow and Istanbul Noir. Wait for your town.
I dearly love the state of Texas, but I consider that a harmless perversion on my part, and discuss it only with consenting adults. —Molly Ivins
Forgive me, but I am a poet by trade. I don't come to noir fiction on the morning train in the bright sunlight. I come obliquely through the back roads of my poetics and love for the American idiom. I'm a member of the second generation of those notorious "New American Poets" anthologized by Donald Allen in 1960. Folks like Robert Creeley, Paul Blackburn, Philip Whalen, Jack Spicer, Ed Dorn, Gary Snyder, and, yes, Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac—radical workers of the language back in their day. Because of these roots, and like so many of my fellow travelers, I have always been drawn to noir fiction. Especially as it's practiced in America. My heroes from the beginning were Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, and later in the 1990s Elmore Leonard came along to feed my imagination when my writing needed an injection of hard-boiled storytelling and cutthroat dialogue.
But Texas? That was another journey. Growing up in Memphis and living for years in Arizona, Colorado, and New Mexico, I never would have guessed that I would move to Texas. Yet, here I am, a longtime Texan.
When my family and I moved south from Albuquerque thirty-something years ago, we asked our friends (the worse sort—writers, intellectuals, ex-hippies) from the so-called "land of enchantment" where we should move: Las Cruces, New Mexico, or El Paso. "Las Cruces," they all said without blinking. They sneered at anything Texas. That's common in New Mexico. Colorado too. Texans are the Ugly Americans of the American Southwest. That's the stereotype. Loud and arrogant. They buy a piece of land in the mountains, wanting to flee the flatlands and horrendous weather of Texas, and they bring Texas along with them.
So, taking our friends' advice, we moved to Las Cruces. It was a mistake of the first order. After a couple of years we got bored. We started sniffing around El Paso forty-five miles down the road. Life was different there, somehow weird, a taste of dark mystery even in the bright Chihuahuan desert sunlight—Spanish in the streets, goddamned real-life cowboys, Mennonites and Mormons from Mexico, a whole herd of Lebanese immigrants, the red-light district of Juárez a stone's throw from downtown, regular people who transformed themselves into strange gory tales in the newspaper, the hot dog vendor on the street with his little stash of cheap dope to pay the bills, the bloody smell of the 1910 Mexican Revolution still hanging in the air. The place actually echoes loudly in the American psyche. It pops up all over American literature—Ambrose Bierce, Jack Kerouac, Oscar Zeta Acosta, Carlos Fuentes, Dagoberto Gilb, Benjamin Alire Sáenz, James Crumley, Abraham Verghese, Cormac McCarthy, and so many more. The place felt like home.
So I got my feet Texas wet in El Paso. Why we didn't move here in the first place, I'll never know. But people in El Paso will tell you they don't live in Texas anyway. They live in El Paso.
Seems like everybody who lives in Texas has a snotty attitude about the place where they live. Even if they hate it. Like the bumper sticker from the 1980s, Lucky me, I'm from Lubbock. That was popular the year after Lubbock almost got wiped off the map by a series of God's worst tornados. But what you learn from living in this state is that most of Texas is not Texas. It's not the stereotype that the rest of the nation carries around in the collective consciousness. During the 2008 Obama-versus-Hillary Democratic primary madness, the national press complained that Texas did not fit into the Red State cookie cutter they expected. Beaumont was nothing like Austin which was nothing like Odessa which was nothing like Houston. And Marfa, how did that happen? The talking heads were confused. One guy I saw on TV said, "Texas is not like any other state. It's huge, it's insanely diverse, it's more like a country."
I got a hunch the talking heads never got close to Chicken Shit Bingo. In Austin you can go play Chicken Shit Bingo. The rooster walks around a big board with all the numbers on it. And wherever the rooster takes a shit, that's the number that gets called out. That's Texas.
Chicken Shit Bingo is the Texas of Lone Star Noir.
But really, for the world at large, Texas is not so much a state or a country. It's popular legend pumped up on steroids to become mythos.
Back in the '70s and '80s, the American media gave us two hunks of the Texas legend. One was the prime-time soap opera Dallas. Millions of men and women from around the country—indeed, from around the world—scheduled their lives so they wouldn't miss Dallas. At its center was J.R. Ewing, the epitome of Texas cynicism and greed played ever so shrewdly by Larry Hagman. He wore his $5,000 suits, his top-dollar Stetson, and his elegant chocolate crocodile-hide cowboy boots. When was J.R. ever going to have to pay up for his sins and his silk underwear? The guy had enough money and power to buy Houston, but he'd screw his best friend to get more. And after lunch he'd screw the guy's wife. J.R. enjoyed those sins of his, and he very much enjoyed being a Texan. Indeed, he flaunted Texas. Big and rich Texas. And his public hated him and loved him at the same time.
The cowboy side of that Texas coin was embodied in Larry McMurtry's Lonesome Dove. The novel became a hugely popular television miniseries starring Robert Duvall and Tommy Lee Jones as ex–Texas Rangers Woodrow Call and Gus McCrae. The story is simple. Those old boys get tired of living the ranching life down on the Rio Grande so they go steal a herd of longhorns from the "Meskins," killing a few in the bargain. The series follows the heroes and their herd up through Texas to Wyoming with enough adventures and fights and evil to satisfy Ulysses fresh from the killing fields of Troy. McMurtry is a scholar about cowboy life and the great cattle drives of the nineteenth century, and so the book and the miniseries are rich with the lifestyle and paraphernalia of cowboy legend. The stuff of Texas lore. Neither the book nor the TV series, it should be noted, was kind to Mexicans, blacks, Indians, or women. But, as a matter of fact, the Texas Rangers and the state of Texas weren't exactly kind to these citizens either. It's like a Texas disease.
Still, you can drive around Texas for a long time and never meet J.R. Ewing or Woodrow Call. The real Texas hides out in towns and cities like you'll find in Lone Star Noir, and in that very Texas reality, among the everyday good folks of Texas, you'll find the hard-boiled understanding of guns and dope and blood money and greed and hatred and delusion that makes these fourteen stories come alive on the page. Sure, you might catch a glimpse of J.R. and old Woodrow Call, like a shadow at the edge of your sight, feel their heat at your back, catch a whiff of the dead flowers which are their Texas dreams. This is basic foodstuff for a Texas writer telling a story, but the story must always stay true to its place and the people who live there. That's the strength of these stories in Lone Star Noir—the particular place they come from, the language that the characters speak. Yes, they are pieces of the larger puzzle that is Texas, but they are more true to the pieces of ground they reveal.
Texas, in all its many places, bleeds noir fiction.
In putting together the collection, we had to decide how to group the stories. Texas is not easily divided. It's not a pie chart. But like most things literary, the stories themselves told us how to do the job. People think of Texas, they think cowboys and dirt farming. They think "Back Roads Texas." But Texas has changed. Lee Harvey Oswald and Jack Ruby made sure we got that message. "Big City Texas"—Houston, Dallas, San Antonio, Austin, El Paso—is now the face of the state. But we also had these strange and dark stories from the Gulf Coast, so different than tales from the cities and back roads. Those stories made a place for themselves. And luckily for us, the only two carpetbaggers in the collection—Luis Alberto Urrea and David Corbett—collaborated on a road journey across Texas. That story's heart is in the Cajun world of the Gulf Coast, but it wanders upstream on Interstate 10 through San Antonio and careens toward El Paso, finally to disappear in the darkness that is now Juárez, 2010. It reminds us that all these stories are tied together by the Texas that is right now.
Speaking of luck, nothing could have been better karma than having an unpublished story from James Crumley (1939–2008). Jim's widow Martha Elizabeth in Missoula, a wonderful lady and a true keeper of Jim's flame, was delighted to work with us and she found nestled in one of his files the story "Luck." Now being hailed as "the patron saint of the post-Vietnam private eye novel," Jim was born in Three Rivers and raised in South Texas. He was one of those writers who could hate Texas and love Texas in the same sentence. He understood Texas, his own piece of Texas—its language, its machismo, its fears and loves—even if he fled the place. His busted-up heroes Milo Milodragovitch and C.W. Sughrue don't exist without Texas.
Many people have aided and abetted this anthology, and Johnny Byrd and I thank them, especially David Thompson of Murder by the Book in Houston, Clay Smith of the Texas Book Festival, Susan Post of BookWoman in Austin, Milton T. Burton, and Bill Cunningham. Props go out to publisher Johnny Temple (a.k.a. Johnny Akashic)—friend and colleague. The guy has patience, the guy has smarts. Thanks and kudos especially to the writers, all of whom came up with such excellent stories, some like Joe R. Lansdale and Jessica Powers at very short notice.
And finally, on a very personal note, I want to say that it's been an honor to work with my coeditor and son Johnny Byrd. He brings a wise and steady hand to the sometimes erratic whims of his old man.
It's been such a pleasure.
And now it's done. I hope there will be more. One Lone Star Noir won't do the job.
Bobby Byrd El Paso, TX August 2010
Excerpted from Lone Star Noir Copyright © 2010 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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