2008-03-19 / Book Review

'Queens Noir' Paints Realistic Picture Of Boro

Book Review


Queens Noir
Edited by Robert Knightly
ISBN-13: 978-1-933354-40-8
350 pages

"Film noir" is defined as "a type of film especially of the 1940s or '50s fatalistic, pessimistic or cynical in mood and often dealing melodramatically with urban crime and corruption". Readers of Akashic Books' Queens Noir will doubtless agree as they peruse this print version of Queens as film noir. In an anthology of 19 stories set in neighborhoods from Astoria to Woodside readers will travel from one end of the borough- and the world- to the other and make some interesting stops along the way.

The 19 stories of Queens Noir, by Denis Hamill, Maggie Estep, Megan Abbott, Robert Knightly (the anthology's editor), Liz Martínez, Jill Eisenstadt, Mary Byrne, Tori Carrington, Shailly P. Agnihotri, K.J.A. Wishnia, Victoria Eng, Alan Gordon, Beverly Farley, Joe Guglielmelli and Glenville Lovell, are divided into three sections. Part I: Queens on the Fly: by Sea, Horse, Train, Plane and Silver Screen, Part II, Old Queens and Part III, Foreign Shores. Despite the differences among the characters they portray and the situations those characters find themselves in, the Queens Noir stories deliver a universal message: life isn't always easy, it isn't always fun, and even those we envy have parts of their existences they hope never see the light of day. The stories are an Edward Hopper painting that uses words and the images they conjure to convey quiet desperation and loneliness, even in those stories that have "happy" endings.

Part I: Queens on the Fly: by Sea, Horse, Train, Plane and Silver Screen, begins with "Alice Fantastic", a gambler in Long Island City, taking her sometime bed partner to Aqueduct Racetrack where a long shot does, indeed, come in, then puts the reader on a yacht "Under the Throgs Neck Bridge" for a Father's Day family reunion with a vengeful twist. A castaway from the Golden Venture is the instrument for a widow's keeping ownership of her Rockaway Beach house out of the hands of her greedy son in the story named for the ship, and in Joe Guglielmelli's "Buckner's Error", a man who has the last name of the player who helped the Boston Red Sox lose the sixth game of the 1986 World Series arrives at the Willets Point stop on the No. 7 line bound for an interleague game at Shea Stadium only to make a different sort of rendezvous. While Kim Sykes' "Arrivederci, Aldo" could take place nowhere but at Long Island City's Silvercup Studios, the only Queens element in "Baggage Claim" by Patricia King is its setting at John F. Kennedy International Airport, though the lingering impact of the 9/11 terrorist attacks will resonate with readers everywhere.

The stories in Part II, Old Queens, are set in both past and present and some of them bridge the two. Megan Abbott's "Hollywood Lanes" takes the reader back to a summer that is the turning point in the life of the 13-year-old narrator and most of the adults at the Forest Hills bowling alley where her mother works two shifts. "Only the Strong Survive" answers some questions but asks still more. Just how senile is the narrator's father anyway, and what, if anything, did he have to do with the bodies in the basement of the crumbling mansion on Astoria's 12th Street? Who killed the narrator's wife? Mary Byrne ensures that we'll never really know.

The stone saints that keep constant watch over Blissville in Robert Knightly's "First Calvary" aren't enough to keep a young boy from trying to ease his inner loneliness and feelings of abandonment with an aggressive theft. Knightly's story, the shortest in the book, also points to some of its major problems. If Knightly used the real names of Greenpoint and Bradley Avenues, why is Star Avenue misspelled as Starr, which could mislead the reader into thinking of an entirely different locality? Another incongruity: if Aunt May works at the phone company, why is she sitting in the "arthritis chair" in the late afternoon, and why is it she who walks the boy back along his route beside the cemetery to his punishment? Nor does it seem likely that bloodthirsty hostiles will aim "piteous" stares at the boy; we think Knightly meant pitiless, "without pity". Lack of attention to proofreading detail interrupts the flow of what is an otherwise disturbing yet fascinating word picture of a child who even at a young age is devoid of hope.

Little League baseball and a Hasidic seminary let the good guys, in the person of members of the New York City Police Department, win one in Alan Gordon's "Bottom of the Sixth". The drug-dealer villains, of course, do not fare as well, but Gordon's well-crafted story allows the reader to feel sympathetic toward both sides, albeit more toward the cops. The good guys win another one in "The Flower of Flushing", Victoria Eng's tale of a teenage girl trying to navigate adolescence with some of the added hazards attendant on older acquaintances and tough-guy wannabes. The young heroine finds an ingenious, if somewhat distasteful way of dealing with a dangerous situation that will nevertheless appeal.

"Crazy Jill Saves the Slinky" by Stephen Solomita metes out justice to a wife-beater on parole, but by the time the miscreant has received his due we feel as fed up with the whole business as Crazy Jill, the narrator. Solomita could use more insight into the way women think before he tries to write another story from a feminine point of view. We can agree completely that Joanna (the Slinky) finds sex a chore that brings out the actress in her, but no woman would describe another woman- or a man, for that matter- as wearing navy slacks over a pale blue top and it's hard to believe that Uncle Mike in this day and age wouldn't install a microwave oven in his love nest, even in a neighborhood that favors tradition to the extent that College Point is said to do.

Lori and Tony Karayianni together make up Tori Carrington, and Tori Carrington devises a credible, well-told story with private investigator Spyros Metropolis as its narrator in "Last Stop, Ditmars". Carrington has an eye for detail and weaves such events as the 2006 blackout into the narrative line with care and skill. Again, though, we wish there was more careful proofreading and editing in this book: the verb "to loathe" and the adjective "loath" are not interchangeable.

Jackson Heights, especially, is, indeed, more Indian than India in Shailly P. Agnihotri's "Avoid Agony", the first story in the third and final section, Foreign Shores, and as Raj Kumar knows through the astrology readings that he provides- and uses as his guide for the Matrimony Investigating Agency that he operates in tandem- one man's bad luck is another's good fortune.

Things don't turn out as well for several people in "Viernes Loco" ("Crazy Friday") by K.J.A. Wishnia. Once again, Shea Stadium looms in the background as private investigator Filomena Buscarsela investigates a case of pharmaceutical counterfeiting that leads to the discovery of a homicide and puts an end to the prospects of a high school baseball phenomenon. A violent life lived in South Jamaica leads to a violent death in "Out of Body" by Glenville Lovell and the lights do, indeed, go out for a crooked cop in "Lights Out for Frankie" by Liz Martínez. "Jihad Sucks; or, the Conversion of the Jews" by Jillian Abbott leaves the reader wondering if would-be jihadist Ramzi Saleh, whose cover involves teaching math at Richmond Hill H.S. really is what he purportedly becomes. The last story, Belinda Farley's "The Investigation", depicts every reporter's nightmare: trying to assuage the unassuageable. It is fitting that Queens Noir ends with a story that underlines its fundamental message: despair is the human condition.

The most disturbing part of the book is Knightly's Introduction. The No. 7 train is sometimes called the International Express, not the Orient Express. The Bridge Plaza Tech Center does indeed boast a clock tower, but Knightly misidentifies it as the former Brewster Building, now semi-occupied by Chase Bank and a good block away. And we have had our issues with Ellen Freudenheim's Queens, but the book deserves to be quoted correctly. We would also encourage the reader to skip Knightly's expository introduction, read the stories and draw his or her own conclusions first.

The Introduction aside, Queens Noir is for the most part entertaining (although "Out of Body" may be too graphic for some readers and we would encourage acclimating oneself to the book by reading some of the other offerings first). It offers a diversion that still has the ring of truth.


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