New Jersey Noir
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Introduction How Blackly Lovely: Noir in New Jersey
During the past several decades, "crime"—as historical fact, as literary subject, as theme and variation—seems to have acquired a mythopoetic status in our American culture. To write about crime is to focus upon American life in extremis: as if distilled, pure. The complex and overlapping worlds of criminal behavior and law enforcement, highly publicized criminal trials, the dissolving of the putative barrier between "business" and "crime"—a subculture of intense interest in the phenomenon of serial killers and a new awareness of "victims' rights"—these have become significant culture issues; as in a novel by Balzac or Dostoyevsky, in which a dense swath of society is minutely examined, the anatomizing of both high-profile crimes and more ordinary, even quotidian crimes has become a way of exposing the American soul. The considerable success of Akashic Books' ambitious Noir Series is both a testament to this American preoccupation with crime as a way of decoding American life and a symptom of the preoccupation.
Noir isn't invariably about crime, nor is the subject of crime invariably a noir subject, but the two are closely bound together, as in this collection of original, highly inventive, and disturbing noir stories, poetry, and art set in the "Garden State"—a title meant to be taken literally (for New Jersey is beautifully rural, hilly, and even pastoral—once you are off the Turnpike and out of range of those powerfully pungent smells of industry), though many inhabitants of the state would guess that it's meant as a cruel irony.
Noir isn't subject matter so much as a sensibility, a tone, an atmosphere. Noir is both metaphor and the actual—raw, ravishing—thing. Noir is the essence of mystery: that which cannot be "solved." Most of all, noir is a place—"a certain slant of light"—in which a betrayal will occur.
Noir is the consequence of an individual's expectations, hopes, or intentions confronted by the betrayal of another, often an intimate. Noir is usually—though not inevitably—sexual betrayal: death is a secondary matter, set beside the terrible betrayal of trust.
Quintessential noir centers around a man—(yes, the genre has been male-oriented, by tradition)—whose desire for a beautiful woman has blinded him to her true, manipulative, evil self: the (beautiful) female as evil, like the primeval Eve. (Unbeautiful women can be evil too, though men are not so likely to be seduced by them, hence betrayed.) But the noir betrayal can range farther and deeper and can encompass, in more ambitious works of art, a fundamental betrayal of the spirit—innocence devastated by the experience of social injustice or political corruption.
Which is why works of enduring significance—Aeschylus's Orestia, Shakespeare's Macbeth and King Lear, Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov, to name just a few—owe their genesis not simply to crimes but to unspeakable, hideous, taboo crimes: "sins" against humanity.
Noir as the primary human condition: the betrayal of one's kind.
Our indigenous and most glamorous American noir is likely to be identified with the Los Angeles of James M. Cain (The Postman Always Rings Twice, Double Indemnity), Raymond Chandler (The Big Sleep, Farewell, My Lovely), Dashiell Hammett (The Maltese Falcon, Red Harvest)—that is, the Los Angeles of the 1930s and '40s. These are "classic" noir works of fiction in which the femme fatale is a locus of evil, as she is the prime mover of plot: without the primeval Eve, there is no mystery, therefore no story. But they are classic noir works in which the (male) voice of the private detective, and his distinct, post-Hemingway sensibility, are raised to the level of art, not merely pulp entertainment. The private detective as a variant of a crusading knight—the "incorruptible" (male) consciousness seeking to make sense of a labyrinth of lies, double crosses, betrayals, murders. Though in life private detectives are virtually never involved with homicides or crimes of great significance, in noir literature and film the private detective is a successful competitor with the police homicide detective, and is not bound by the officer's putative code of behavior.
The private detective is both cynical and, oddly, innocent—open to being deceived, at least temporarily. That the private detective is open to being betrayed makes him our alter ego in the struggle of good-and-evil—the struggle of good to know evil, to name and conquer it.
These classic noir titles, made into equally classic films, have exerted a powerful influence upon American successors well into the twenty-first century—James Ellroy, Michael Connelly, Dennis Lehane, Tom Cook, Patricia Cornwell, and Laura Lippman, among numerous others. These are "crime" writers but the focus of their concern is moral: the knowing, naming, and conquering of evil. Where noir falls beyond the compass of the questing detective as in, for instance, the sequence of graphically violent, neo-biblical allegories of the West written by Cormac McCarthy (from Blood Meridian to No Country for Old Men and The Road), there is only the knowing and naming of evil—there is no conquering of evil. The human hope is for mere survival.
Noir has flourished in films, particularly in the wake of the influence of displaced European filmmakers (like Fritz Lang) after World War II and the Holocaust—giving to even conventional Hollywood films like Henry Hathaway's Niagara (1953), with its final, eerie, starkly German Expressionist scene of the killing of the unfaithful Rose (Marilyn Monroe in her breakthrough screen role) by her vengeful husband (Joseph Cotten as a traumatized and "impotent" war veteran), a mythopoetic gravity. Classic noir films—from Tod Browning's Freaks (1932) to Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo (1958)—are too many to list; outstanding neo-noir films include Roman Polanski's Chinatown (1974), Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver (1976), Curtis Hanson's L.A. Confidential (1997), and the more recent, innovative Memento (2001) by Christopher Nolan. In television, there have been relatively few noir standouts—the Kafkaesque The Fugitive (1963–67), the highly stylized Miami Vice (1984–89) with its pounding, erotic pre-MTV music track, and the more gritty police procedurals Hill Street Blues (1981–87), NYPD Blue (1993–2005), and Homicide: Life on the Street (1993–99). Of the two television series generally named as the greatest achievements in the history of the medium, both are brilliantly original noir dramas—The Sopranos (1999–2007) and The Wire (2002–08). Famously set in New Jersey, suggested in the opening credits as an appendage—that is, a "suburb"—of the more powerful crime families of New York City, The Sopranos is based upon creator David Chase's inspired adaptation of New Jersey Mafioso history including the careers of the Newark "godfather" Ruggiero Boiardo (1890–1984) and Abner Zwillman, "The Al Capone of New Jersey" (1904–59). (Zwillman was the most famous Jewish crime boss of his era; as C.K. Williams notes in "Newark Black": Our gangster hero, Longie Zwillman, who had a black car.) It was Chase's brilliantly original interpretation of the Mafioso legend—the operatic gravitas of Francis Ford Coppolla's Godfather epic rendered in diminished, often domestic images—that made The Sopranos like no other crime saga in film or TV history. So thoroughly has the iconic thickened figure of Tony Soprano saturated American popular culture in the early years of the twenty-first century, it's as if the image of "New Jersey" itself has been transmogrified into a set—a backdrop for the ongoing drama of organized crime in collusion with a corrupt political leadership. In place of the archetypal elder godfather Vito Corleone of The Godfather, played with dignity by Marlon Brando, is the distinctly less elevated but very New Jersey Tony Soprano, played by James Gandolfini.
(Among Jersey settings memorably used in The Sopranos is the teasingly protracted, mordantly funny sequence titled "The Pine Barrens," in which Paulie Walnuts and Christopher Moltisanti try gamely to kill a Rasputin-like member of the Russian mob in the wilderness of South Jersey from which they are barely rescued after becoming hopelessly lost. The subtext of the episode seems to be that "organized crime" is an urban phenomenon: lost in the wilderness, if only the relatively tame wilderness of the Pine Barrens, the blustering Mafioso are helpless as children.)
More recently, Martin Scorsese's critically acclaimed Boardwalk Empire (2010–11), set in Prohibition-era Atlantic City, draws upon Boardwalk Empire: The Birth, High Times, and Corruption of Atlantic City by the New Jersey judge and historian Nelson Johnson; the HBO series is a fictionalization of the flamboyant life and career of the entrepreneurial Enoch "Nucky" Thompson, a Prohibition bootlegger who hosted what is said to have been the first national organized crime syndicate meeting, in 1929, with Al Capone and other mob bosses, photographed companionably together on the Atlantic City boardwalk.
The Sopranos and Boardwalk Empire are noir romances. Boardwalk Empire in particular is rich in 1920s period detail—costumes, automobiles, hairstyles, vernacular speech; unlike Tony Soprano with his loose-fitting sport shirts and careless grooming, Nucky Thompson is the gangster-politician as dandy and visionary. Though frequently and graphically violent, The Sopranos and Boardwalk Empire are populated with characters who are domestic and familial; their most intense concerns are with human relations, not "business"—or not exclusively "business." (It's a measure of the romance of The Sopranos that the mob boss Tony Soprano is so unfailingly solicitous of his wife Carmella—even when they argue, Tony doesn't beat her. And his immense patience for his excruciatingly self-absorbed children is equally impressive.) Like the serio-comic mystery series by Janet Evanovich, featuring an unlikely female bounty hunter in Trenton, New Jersey, and particularly popular with women readers, these HBO dramas appeal to an audience for whom the noir quest—the knowing, naming, and conquering of evil—is linked to colorful storytelling. Not even Martin Scorsese would wish to cross the line into the annals of real-life, unorganized New Jersey crime at its most extreme: the infamous rape and murder of seven-year-old Megan Kanka, for instance, in Hamilton, New Jersey, in 1994, by the serial sex offender Jesse Timmendequas (subsequently incarcerated in New Jersey State Prison); the five or more murders committed by the psychopath Richard Biegenwald, of Monmouth County, between 1958 and 1983 (Biegenwald died in New Jersey State Prison in 2008); the slaughter of his family in Westfield, in 1971, by the accountant John List (who died in prison custody in 2008 at the age of eighty-two). Noir is a highly selective art—and such brute ugliness isn't redeemable by art.
In this volume, no work of fiction or poetry directly evokes such crude, hellish crimes, but the surreal-nightmare family snapshots of Gerald Slota's art at the start of each section comes closest to evoking the "pure products of America" (to use William Carlos Williams's striking phrase) from which these terrible crimes and criminals might spring.
New Jersey!—"The Garden State"—our fifth smallest state, with only Hawaii, Connecticut, Delaware, and Rhode Island below it in land mass, yet it's the state containing the "most murderous" American city (Camden) and the state generally conceded to be, square mile per square mile, the most densely politically corrupt. (Louisiana has been, by tradition, the most corrupt of all U.S. states, but in recent years Illinois has been closing the lead.) Atlantic City, Jersey City, Hackensack, Hoboken, Secaucus, Newark, Camden (three recent Camden mayors have been jailed for corruption)—in these cities as in others corruption isn't aberrant but rather a way of (political) life. (Why? The answer seems to be that New Jersey is a maze of overlapping and competing municipalities—556, to California's 480—that bring with it rich opportunities for political entrenchment, deal-making, and outright thievery.)
New Jersey is among the wealthiest of states, with a per capita income that was the highest in the United States in 2000; judged by the desolation of its inner cities, it is simultaneously one of the poorest. New Jersey is a microcosm of the profoundly unequal distribution of wealth in the United States generally—within an hour one can drive from the wealthy exurbia of Far Hills and Saddle River to the dismal poverty of inner-city Newark; from the mansions of Princeton to the desperate poverty of inner-city Camden. Within an hour's radius of Princeton University, the most heavily endowed (per student) university in the United States, with an endowment in excess of $25 billion, are inner-city schools in ever-desperate need of funds. Sitting between the great cities of New York and Philadelphia, New Jersey has been by tradition a heavily "organized" Mafia state, as it was at one time a northern outpost of the Ku Klux Klan, with a concentration of members in Trenton, Camden, Monmouth County, and South Jersey. (Officially, the Jersey Klan was disbanded in 1944, but a writer friend of mine, now living in Princeton, recalls her Jewish father being harassed by the Klan in the 1960s, when a cross was burned on the front lawn of his family home in Long Branch, on the Jersey shore.)
New Jersey has had a rich history of sensational crimes. Still unsolved are the Hall-Mills murders of 1922: Reverend Edward Hall was a charismatic Episcopal priest in New Brunswick, found dead with his married mistress Eleanor Mills, a singer in the church choir; Hall's wife and two brothers were tried for the murders but acquitted, in a trial that attracted rabid national media interest. Then there is the Lindberg kidnapping-murder of 1932—The biggest story since the Resurrection, as H.L. Mencken dryly remarked. After a manhunt and a badly botched police investigation, the illegal German immigrant and ex-convict Bruno Richard Hauptmann was tried, convicted, and executed for having kidnapped and murdered the twenty-month-old Lindberg baby, taken from his crib in the East Amwell country house of the Lindbergs, near Hopewell. (Though Hauptmann was found guilty, the case remains controversial among aficionados of high-profile crime.) In more recent years the "devoutly religious, family annihilator" John List accrued a high degree of notoriety by eluding police for eighteen years after murdering his mother, wife, and three children in 1971; and the charismatic Cherry Hill rabbi Fred Neulander was a tabloid sensation for having commissioned a hit on his wife Carol in 1994. (Neulander was found guilty of conspiring to murder his wife, following the testimony of the hired assassin.) But most New Jersey crime falls far below the radar of the tabloids, as most New Jersey citizens will never merit the hysterical attention accorded a resident celebrity like Charles Lindberg.
Of the contributors to New Jersey Noir, only Barry N. Malzberg and Bill Pronzini take on a "sensational" subject—the assassination of teamster president Jimmy Hoffa, who disappeared from public view in July 1975 and was declared officially dead seven years later. In Malzberg and Pronzini's first-person confession, "Meadowlands Spike," we learn that—possibly!—the late, not-much-lamented teamster boss has found a resting place in just the right corner of the Garden State.
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