New Haven. What a gritty, dirty, low-life town, littered with the corpses of the striving, the exploited, churning with the endless contest between power and the powerless.
Well, if New Haven were a Raymond Chandler story it might look that way.
Chandler’s dead. Long dead. The Wire came and went, but parked in Baltimore.
But fear not. Fifteen of New Haven’s literary lights have put ink to paper (or bytes to screen?) to summon that “noir” city of the imagination that lurks just below the rapidly gentrifying surface.
The fifteen writers have contributed short stories to a book that came out this week called New Haven Noir. Edited by Amy Bloom, it’s the latest in a series of city-themed noir collections published by Akashic Books. New Haven follows in the muddy bootsteps of Mumbai, the Bronx, Beirut, Boston Detroit, Paris, Phoenix, Providence, and dozens of other cities which already have had volumes published exploring in fiction their seamy underbellies.
As with collections of this sort, the New Haven Noir reader will enjoy some stories, shrug at others, find some disappointing.
When this collection works best, the writers take a broader view of “noir,” exploring the psychic dark side of the city and human soul-wrestling from a perspective they understand rather than climbing into the threadbare costumes of trite true-crime perpetrators they’ve only read about or seen from a distance.
Two of New Haven’s most gifted fiction writers — longtime Elm City household name Alice Mattison and relative newcomer Hirsh Sawhney — contributed two of the most compelling stories. Yes, they each pivot off a crime in the city (murder in Mattison’s case, West River drug-dealing in Sawhney’s). But they don’t focus on grisly details of the acts or appropriate the voices of the perpetrators. They instead draw on the lives they’ve lived — Mattison as an East Rocker friendly with many people in the social service world, Sawhney as a suburban-raised son of Indian immigrants who would venture into the city — to capture a distinctively New Haven twist on the way the Yale-scented privileged exploit the less privileged under the illusion that they’re actually either helping them or at least living as peers. Our true “noir” city is the “Model City,” that laboratory of social-science experimentation that churns out some great ideas for rescuing human beings in general while manipulating the hometown lab subjects. Our “noir” city is lined with invisible barriers that to cross from one direction can exact a life-altering penalty, meted out sometimes violently by a military-style police force with contempt for civil liberties.
Sawhney, whose debut novel South Haven came out last year (read more about that here), previously served as editor for another Akashic “noir” collection, of stories about Delhi. In his contribution to New Haven Noir, “A Woe For Ever Season,” Sawhney focuses on three suburban kids who buy drugs in West River, befriend a dealer named Ink, and bring him to a fateful party in a mansion in the St. Ronan/Edgehill neighborhood.
During a joint appearance Thursday with Mattison on the WNHH radio “Dateline New Haven” program, Sawhney said the Akashic noir series has enabled lesser-known writers to reach new audiences.
“There aren’t a lot of opportunies for writers of stories out there,” he said. “Even if you do manage to get your prose into one of the few literary journals that continue to exist in the English-speaking world, you have a very small readership, except for the New Yorker. Even the elite literary journals, only a couple hundreds people are going to read your stories at most. Whereas you get your story into an Akashic noir anthology, you’re guaranteed a readership of 5,000 to 100,000 people.”
Sawhney noted how in his story, the three suburban teens slumming in the city, “like so many people in the world, are not necessarily conscious aware of ... the privilege that enables them to move through the world with a certain amount of fearlessness.” Until a couple of memorable awakenings.
The best noir fiction, Sawhney observed, explores “the way in which individual humans are embedded in fundamentally corrupt systems and hierarchies. Sometimes well-meaning individuals …. who seek to be ethical and do good are inevitably collaborating with and dependent upon other individuals and power structures that are inevitably corrupt. And then the question becomes: Can we harness that corrupt power to do good? Or by engaging with it are we corrupt?”
That question confronts the narrator of Mattison’s story in the collection, “Innovative Methods.” The story centers on a residential program for troubled kids, where a (white) rising-star Yale-affiliated psychologist named Dr. Frank senses a career-making book in a particularly difficult (African-American) teen he’s been counseling (and video-recording).
Although the setting is different from Sawhney’s, this story too explores the divide between the privileged and less privileged in New Haven and questions of personal responsibility, as a young female psychotherapist at the agency struggles with her attraction to Dr. Frank and her concern about his methods.
“A friend of mine said, ‘You know, in a noir story, the protagonist is kind of partly at fault, even if she’s not the criminal,’” Mattison said. Advice taken.
In accepting the invitation to contribute to the collection, Mattison, author of six novels, four short-story collections, and a new non-fiction book about writing, considered what part of town seems most “noir.”
She hit on Lighthouse Point Park, where the story begins and ends, and where one of the residential program’s teens goes missing. And where, Mattison said, “the carousel is spooky. The weather is spooky.”
I don’t want to spoil the surprise plot twists for you. You can read the stories yourself by ordering the book here. You can also hear some of the stories read aloud at author events, including a launch party this Thursday (Aug. 3) at 7 p.m. at the Institute Library, and readings at R. J. Julia in Madison on Aug. 10 (also at 7 p.m.) and at the Free Public Library on Elm Street on Sept. 7 (6 p.m.) ...
... or you click on or download the above audio file to listen to Mattison and Sawhney read from their stories and discuss them on an episode of WNHH radio’s “Dateline New Haven.”