Tales from the City on a Hill of Beans
I am a Boston boy but I have been absent from that city for close to a decade now. So it should not be surprising that I jumped at the chance to read Boston Noir, the latest in Akashic Books noir series. Edited by Dennis Lehane (he of Mystic River and Shutter Island fame), each of the eleven short stories in Boston Noir is set in a different neighborhood of Boston and presents the “deep, dark” stories of the people who live there. Of course, as Boston is so much more than just the city proper, the stories seep into the cities and towns that surround Boston as well, because to anyone who grows up near the city, the city is and always will be home.
After reading each of the stories in Boston Noir, I was reminded of the many reasons why I left Boston. Each of the characters, in their own respective ways, realizes that they are second-rate people, trapped in a city which, despite its many past glories, is just as second rate. There is nothing beautiful about the people in Boston Noir and though they feed on hope, it is not enough to sustain them. In his introduction, Lehane describes Boston as a paradox: “[W]hat’s lost has, in many cases, been taken; what’s left is what people can’t sell. Noir is a genre of loss, of men and women unable to roll with the changing times, so the changing times instead roll over them . . .” There probably cannot be a fitter epitaph for the City on a Hill or a better warning for the people who live there.
Lehane goes on to explain that “[t]he heroes and heroines of noir are usually chasing something that they couldn’t even hold if they caught up to it.” Their futility imbues Boston Noir with an emptiness that we have all felt, even if we cannot admit it. In Lynn Heitman’s “Exit Interview,” set in Boston’s financial district, a young woman confronts a glass ceiling that she learns she can never shatter. Despite earning millions of dollars per year, she knows that she will never achieve the respect that comes from having a title to go along with her outlandish paychecks. It’s not what she has that matters. It’s what she can’t have what counts, and when she loses the one thing that really matters to her, her anguish emerges in ways that even she had not expected.
Although Lehane does not mention it in his introduction, and it may not have been intended by the contributing writers, the balance of power between men and women that drives the story in “Exit Interview” weaves through many of the stories. For example, in Jim Fusilli’s “The Place Where He Belongs,” a husband, years removed from success as a songwriter, finds himself displaced from the fantasy of his New York City life when his wife takes a job in Boston. How he lashes out at his own insignificance in the face of his wife’s success and how he and his wife react to it underscores the fragile nature of relationships that cannot endure when two people are not in some way equal.
“Femme Sole,” by Dana Cameron, further underscores gender dynamics. Set on Boston’s waterfront during the middle of the eighteenth century, “Femme Sole” is the story of Anna Hoyt, the female proprietor of a waterfront tavern who married the wrong man because she needed protection, only to quickly learn that she needed protection from him. Even when her husband is no longer a threat to her, she finds that she must just as quickly seek the protection of another man. Almost comically, albeit in a tragic way, Anna eventually gets the better of every man she encounters until she finally encounters one who treats her as an equal.
In Itabari Njeri’s “The Collar” an aging jazz songstress finds mutual attraction, but not love, in a young former marine whose brother was once one of her students. She tries to help him to escape from the one mistake that could destroy all of the hard work that had taken him from the streets of East Saint Louis to a doctoral program at M.I.T. only to later learn that his one mistake was just one of several. Whether she wants to be the young man’s mother, or lover, or friend, or something else becomes the central issue of “The Collar” but, as with so many relationships, resolution is never all that easy to find.
True Bostonians will recognize many of the settings for each of the stories in Boston Noir but strangers to the city will find that the stories themselves could take place anywhere where people strive to escape from the inescapable ennui of their lives. Nevertheless, for those of us who know the city, the place-references are real and produce a wonderful mental image for each tale. When the protagonist in “The Place Where He Belongs” is said to have visited T.T. the Bears, Bostonians will picture Central Square in Cambridge. When Brendan DuBois describes Scollay Square in “The Dark Island,” Bostonians will know that Scollay Square gave way to urban renewal decades ago and now is known as Government Center, where the hideous I.M. Pei-designed Boston City Hall is located.
“The Dark Island” also highlights the ease in which one human can decide to do harm to another, a second theme that infuses Boston Noir. There is an element of violence in each of the stories—some of it physical, some of it is emotional. All of it is disturbing, not so much because of the effect on the victim but because it has little effect on the perpetrator. It is sufficient to state that in the noir world, it is easy to hurt another and even to take a life because although the characters are not dead, they may be soulless. Without a conscience, no act is beyond justification.
Each of the stories in Boston Noir is extraordinary in its own way. In addition to Heitman, Fusilli, Cameron, Njeri and DuBois, there are contributions from Lehane, who teaches us that even bad people can do bad things for good reason and Patricia Powell, who demonstrates the sadness when a person must confront the choice between loneliness and abuse. In addition, Stewart O’Nan offers a serendipitous series of events that plant in the heart of a good person the seeds of future evil, and John DuFresne brings to light the never forgotten crimes of long ago and the justice that is meted out not by the justice system but by the victims and their advocates. Don Lee shows us how one man can be the pawn of two women in a game that can have no winners.
The final tale is perhaps the most representative of true Boston. In his introduction, Lehane tells us that Boston produces guys who are better referred to as “knuckleheads.” In Russ Aborn’s “Turn Speed,” nothing is more evident than the knuckleheadedness of the boys pretending to be men, as they find ways to rob from their employers, the mob and, in a more poignant way, each other. Whatever they may steal, it is clear that they are small time people living in the shadows of people who they feel to be better than they are. They are the second rate, just as Boston has always played second fiddle to so many other places in so many different ways.
In the Boston of Boston Noir, Bostonians do not try harder just because they are number two. They have given up trying altogether.
Books mentioned in this column:
Boston Noir, edited by Dennis Lehane (Akashic Books, 2009)
David Mitchell spent most of his youth arguing with his elementary school librarian about the merits of Enid Blyton’s works and why it was a crime that Blyton was not represented in the school library. He lost that argument, but that did not stop him from trying to read his way through the school library anyway. Over the years, he has immersed himself in the classics, science fiction and fantasy, history, biography, philosophy, popular religion, cooking, folklore, sports and just about every other genre that can be imagined. Between books, he received a degree in history from Boston College and a law degree from Boston College Law School. In addition to practicing law, he has worked as an interpreter of the history of historic houses in Salem, Massachusetts and participated in the archaeological survey of Boston Common. He is currently a contributing writer at SavingAdvice.com where he finds connections between frugal living and almost every aspect of life. David is also a moderator, book reviewer, and active participant at World War II Forums, a discussion site dedicated to the study of the Second World War. He lives in Florida with his wonderful wife, two sons and a labradoodle puppy. Contact David.