Bottom Dwellers

A collection of short fiction and poetry edited by Joyce Carol Oates explores how much noir literature means in the Garden State.

Courtesy of publisher.
Courtesy of publisher.

Is noir the dominant sensibility of New Jersey? That is a central question raised by New Jersey Noir, a collection of short fiction and poetry edited by esteemed author Joyce Carol Oates. The Garden State is no stranger to crime, scandal and salacious headlines—all essential parts of the noir genre—and these stories cut to the core of the state’s uneasy relationship with sleaze, grit and what poet C.K. Williams here calls “the factories in broken-eyed ruin.”  

The tales take readers on a veritable tour of the state, with settings from Dividing Creek in the south to the Kittatinny Mountains in the north, and many points in between. The inventiveness of the stories—in which characters struggle to confront the grimness of their lives while mustering the guarded optimism needed to rise above self-doubt and external torment—propel the reader from tale to tale.

The book is divided into four sections, each representing a different style of Jersey-noir. There is Romance and Nostalgia, including a clever re-imagining of Orson Welles’s infamous War of the Worlds broadcast; Inner City New Jersey, a good example being “Soul Anatomy,” which details a Camden police officer’s moral courage; Commerce and Retribution; and Garden State Underground.

Former U.S. poet laureate Robert Pinsky weaves memories of boardwalk nights and “the clean chrome arms of the taffy-pulling machine” with another memory of an infirm man struggling to breathe as doctors work on him. From another direction comes a fantasy on the whereabouts of Jimmy Hoffa’s remains.

Though diverse in presentation, the stories share an embrace of otherness, bridging the gap between the Garden State’s complex reality and noir’s nifty, nether-reaching creative juices.

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