Review: Staten Island Noir, edited by Patricia Smith
Sickness, death, and desperation flourish on the forgotten borough in an original anthology from Akashic Books, a new installment in their setting-oriented series.
Staten Islanders are no strangers to criticism or ridicule. Staten Island is the forgotten borough, lacking a subway system, left out of Jay Z’s songs, known for organized crime, bad accents, fake tans, and garbage — which makes it a rich setting for Akashic’s noir series, edited by Patricia Smith. It’s somehow fitting that Brooklyn had two noir books before Staten Island had one.
In this collection, fourteen stories traverse various Staten Island neighborhoods from the Ferry terminal, to the wealthy inhabitants of mansions on Todt Hill, to the “Fly-Ass-Puerto-Rican-Girl-from-The-Stapleton-Projects,” and of course the infamous visible-from-space-with-the-naked-eye Fresh Kills Landfill.
Mystery, secrecy, murder, and illness are only a few of the themes at the forefront of the Staten Island Noir collection. One of the most notable stories, rooted in the actual history of the island, is Bruce DeSilva’s “Abating a Nuisance,” concerning the burning of the Quarantine hospital where patients stricken with yellow fever are a source of bitter frustration for nearby residents, tired of housing the state’s sick only to watch their neighbors and friends fall ill and die each year. DeSilva’s story is reminiscent of more current real disagreements about the Staten Island Landfill, an unwanted monstrosity that came to define the borough for years.
Chronicled in multiple stories throughout the book, the landfill is integrated, perhaps most obviously, in “A User’s Guide to Keeping Your Kill’s Fresh” by Ted Anthony. In the collection, it’s is not only an eyesore, but a dumping ground for contract killers and toxic waste. Without straying far from the truth, these stories touch upon a sordid subject of contention; the landfill was reopened for the World Trade Center debris after 9/11.
In true noir fashion, the stories take a turn for the worse, and occasionally, the weird. In “When They Are Done With Us,” by collection editor Patricia Smith, an abusive son berates and sexually harasses his mother to her breaking point. Entrapment is perhaps the most poignant issue throughout. The sense of desperation is never lost upon readers. “I feared getting stuck like a mastodon in a tar pit. I feared becoming one of them,” one character states in reference to the island. “[I]t’s a bitch livin’ in the city’s asshole,” another says. These stories examine the state of cabin fever. With only bridges and a ferry for escape, it’s understandable that most feel claustrophobic like Eddie Joyce’s character, Mikey, in “Before It Hardens.” “She wanted to trap him,” Mikey thinks when he discovers his girlfriend might be pregnant, threatening his escape of the island through a college baseball scholarship.
In a thrilling tilt-a-whirl of crime and drama, editor Patricia Smith has carefully chosen writers concerned with the true nature of the small suburban borough, that once, not surprisingly, tried to secede from the rest of New York City. One character, Frankie, sums it up when her friend Marie wants to challenge the unspoken code of island ethics and inquire about the banging in a man’s trunk at a gas station in Shay Youngblood’s “Dark Was The Night, Cold Was The Ground.” In an astute moment of clarity, Frankie wisely reminds her, “Marie, honey, this is Staten Island. We should be blind, deaf, and dumb.”
–Samantha Smith is a graduate of the MFA program in creative writing at Hunter College, where she is currently an adjunct instructor in English. She was published in Granta magazine’s New Voices series in September 2011. She is in the process of finishing a memoir. Follow her here.