Oakland Noir is the newest in the marvelous Akashic Noir series of mystery anthologies from Akashic Books. Oakland is the city across the bay from San Francisco and is so often written about in terms of its relationship to its larger, more famous, richer, and whiter neighbor. That does not happen here. These sixteen stories are about Oakland on its own. Oakland is the only focus, with all its poverty, corruption, and contradictions.
Oakland is it own place with its own industries and its own history. It’s a working class city with a diverse population that is rapidly changing. Thirty years about half the population of Oakland was black. Now they are less than 30% of Oakland’s population, with whites and Latinos each hovering around a quarter, with Asians making up the rest, incredible diversity that enriches and challenges the city. You don’t see that kind of dramatic change without conflict.
These stories reflect the diversity of the city. There are stories from lifelong residents and old timers and stories from immigrants. The editors made a point of choosing authors that reflect the history and diversity of the city and who actually live there. There are black men and women writers, straight and queer writers, Latino, Asian, homegrown and immigrant writers. There are stories about the wealthy and the poor, law enforcement and criminals, and mostly about everyday people just trying to make a life.
These are noir stories. They have a sensibility of their own. They are not always mysteries and they don’t always have tidy endings. They certainly do not have happy endings. They feature the grim side of life, on the downsides of life, where people struggle and often do not win. Sometimes making do is the best they can hope for.
I think this is among the better anthologies in the Akashic Noir series. Perhaps I like it so much more because it is less focused on representing different kinds of writing and more on different points of view. There are no poems, even though one of the editors is a poet. There are no science fiction or fantasy stories. These are the kinds of stories I think of when I think of noir. Oakland Noir is more successful because it features a greater variety of writing viewpoints and characters rather than stylistic differences.
One of my favorite stories is “Survivors of a Heartache” that features a newly divorced woman from Sri Lanka who is sharing a house in Montclair next to a wealthy family where it’s obvious there are some deep problems developing, the children are wasting away, the husband and wife are fighting…and wow, it’s one of those stories that turns on a dime. Joe Loya’s “Waiting for Gordo” is a transcript of a couple conversations among some gangsters who are politically astute commentators on current events such as the recent Malheur occupation. I would rather listen to them than Lars Larsen any day of the week. It’s funny, profane, and in the moment…and of course, noir. And there’s no such thing as noir without heartbreak, which is what many of these stories do, though perhaps none more achingly heartbreaking than Phil Canalin’s “The Three Stooges” about three young men living on the street and the slim chance of changing their life’s path.
I liked most of the stories in Oakland Noir. Unlike many of the books I read in this series, I have actually been to Oakland a few times. Not that this gives me any special insight with which to judge the stories, but it did make a different connection for me than the many stories of places I have never been.
So here’s the thing. I love the Akashic Noir Series. It’s a form of armchair travel that is so much more interesting than a guide book. Don’t you understand a city better through its literature than through its promotional advertising? I also think these books are great gifts. Do you have a friend who is moving to Oakland, give them this book and maybe they will stay. Kidding! I think short story books are great gifts because you aren’t choosing just one author and by choosing from this series, you can choose books that connect with the receiver’s life in special ways, one featuring a place they have visited on their travels, for example. What’s not to love and with a dozen or more authors, surely a few will hit a home run.
Anthology authors: Carolyn Alexander, Dorothy Lazard, Harry Louis Williams II, Jamie DeWolf, Joe Loya, Judy Juanita, Katie Gilmartin, Keenan Norris, Keri Miki-Lani Schroeder, Kim Addonizio, Mahmud Rahman, Nayomi Munaweera, Nick Petrulakis, noir, Noir Series, Phil Canalin, Tom McElravey
Oakland Noir will be released April 4th. I received an advance copy through Edelweiss and LibraryThing.
- Oakland Noir at Akashic Books
- Oakland Noir book site
- Akashic Noir Series
- Jerry Thompson on Twitter
- Eddie Muller author site