American pop culture has long been dominated by the stories of its two most notorious cities: New York and Los Angeles. With the book-publishing industry set in one and the movie industry in the other, the narratives of the great flyover heartland have never really had their due. My hometown in particular is wildly underrated as fodder for entertainment, so it was with great interest that I picked up St. Louis Noir, a collection of short stories (and poetry) set in the River City, written by local writers.
Much like St. Louis itself, the collection is uneven, with a few gems, a fair number of decent stories, and a couple that probably shouldn't have made the cut at all. But the overall project and the gems it contains move me to highly recommend it nonetheless. It is a deeply satisfying experience to read stories set in a place you know well, one so few people get to know in fictional form. As a contact zone extraordinaire with an intense and complicated history, it's a crying shame St. Louis isn't taken up as a fictional setting more often.
The collection is organized by geographic section within the metropolitan St. Louis area, which includes Southern Illinois. The best stories capitalize on the subtle distinctions between them, such as Laura Benedict's "A Paler Shade of Death," set in the suburb of Glendale. The deliciously unreliable narrator describes it this way, "Neighborhoods didn't come much more established than this one." It's a jarring backdrop for the dark deeds to follow.
Another gem is collection editor Scott Phillips' "One Little Goddamn Thing," a delightful revenge romp that doesn't take itself too seriously. Following close behind are L.J. Smith's "Tell Them Your Name Is Barbara" and LaVelle Wilkins-Chinn's "Fool's Luck." Smith's story is actually the only one in the entire collection that falls into the category of traditional noir, and the writer gives us a refreshing take on the complicated antihero in lawyer Kaycie Crawford. I would happily tag along on more adventures with that one. And "Fool's Luck" takes character quirkiness to a level you can only see from St. Louis' own Gateway Arch, epitomizing the down-home Midwestern storytelling I've come to know and love.
Where the collection suffers is when writers make the project primarily a political one, with stereotypical renditions (one story actually features a white male villain named "Bubba") and a serious lack of character and plot development. The poetry - ersatz Ginsberg - also seems out of place. But short story collections are like boxes of chocolate, and there's no harm done when you can reach for the next potential gem, of which this one has many.