By Matthew C. Funk
Orange County is the sick dog living off of Los Angeles County’s scraps, and Akashic Books’ OC Noir delivers that depraved desperation. This hardboiled bite of Orange County’s sprawl keeps its genre plotting consistent thanks to the accomplished instincts of editor, Gary Phillips. OC Noir has to leap from diverse ZIP codes—the immigrant-driven squalor of Santa Ana to the beachside sparkle of Dana Point—but Phillips makes sure the stories share the same pounding pulse and venomous blood. OC Noir manages to be as true to the genre as it is to the character of its neighborhoods.
Skeptics should dismiss any doubt that Orange County is a perfect setting for noir stories: It’s a fertile garden for the stock-and-trade noir stories of ruthless desire and demolished dreams—a train wreck of wealthy communities smashed into zones of the starving and star-struck. That the OC’s glamour seems all the more banal and artificial than Los Angeles makes all the more combustible a subject. Superficiality and stagnation create pressurized conditions, sealing the citizens of OC Noir like rats trapped in boxes of their own shit, frenziedly scratching to get their next fix.
The best stories in OC Noir speak from neighborhoods where the paralyzing collision is most acute—where the hungry have the flavor of wealth all around them but can’t take a bite. Costa Mesa is such a neighborhood and in Crazy for You, Barbara DeMarco-Barrett tells such a story. Lust for wealth, sex and self-worth fuels a classic tale of a woman trying to claw her way out of the muck of poverty and codependency for the promise of something better. DeMarco-Barrett’s prose is lush but intense, propelling the plot along while keeping the protagonist’s process excruciating. With Tustin’s story Diverters, Rob Roberge straps together a lean and vivid story of a young man scoring drugs to escape demons that come ripping out of him at the end. Diverters forces a hard look at the high-cost desolation of Tustin, without ever leaving his anti-hero’s personal experience.
This kind of prose, that lets the neighborhood reveal its bleak soul through the struggles of the characters, is the flesh of OC Noir. Gordon McAlpine, The Happiest Place, depicts a noir story in the Disneyland-dominated area of Anaheim through a narrator who might be taking us on a fantasy ride of his own. That eerie and brilliant deceit contrasts with the stark style of Bee Canyon, Susan Straight sewing together the kind of dry rural legend of a roadside phantom that would haunt her chosen territory, Santa Ana Narrows. Thanks to the stewardship of Phillips, you get all the variety in Orange County’s character from the prose with a strong sinew of noir pacing and plot.
Dedication to those genre fundamentals mean that poor stories are tough to come by in OC Noir. Patricia McFall uses On the Night in Question to give us a glimpse of the marooned community of Garden Grove, telling of a mid-management, mid-life man who entertains a dangerous temptation for the sake of tasting some escape from mediocrity. Every word doesn’t serve to resonate the message unlike those mentioned before, but her story is still a spot-on diagnosis of that stifling place and its exemplary inhabitant. The same goes for Dan Duling, The Toll, Robert Ward, Black Star Canyon and Martin J. Smith, Dark Matter. Their stories land dead-on the soul of the communities they’ve chosen, serving up sharp metaphors that race along the kind of sordid course the genre demands.
Even where the pieces in OC Noir stray from really sinking their edge into the spirit of the community, the reader still gets a hearty dose of noir. In The Performer, Gary Phillips himself machines together an account of treachery, sleaze and blood that has all its shocks and reveals clicking in tight timing, even though the setting of Los Alamitos seems inessential. The same holds true with A Good Day’s Work, Nathan Walpow, The Movie Game, Dick Lochte and the lingering chiller by Lawrence Maddox, Old, Cold Hand. They give a nod to key aspects to their settings, but as mean a beast as their noir stories are, they could live just as well in other places.
Almost every page of OC Noir has the ink of human suffering on it and provides an inviting darkness for any genre loyalist. Only with the overly elaborate glimpse at the illegal immigrant experience by Mary Castillo, 2:45 Out of Santa Ana, does the prose stray too far to ensnare with typical noir tangles. Castillo attempts shifts in point-of-view and tense that only baffle an already complex story, leaving the reader too alienated to identify with an otherwise engaging plot.
Pulp plots can and do flourish in Orange County, and OC Noir is the tragic evidence of this. Expect straight-forward prose that varies in voice but seldom in delivering the punches and twists. You get all the diversity of this landscape of collisions and crushed hopes, rendered with some beautifully characteristic craft in certain cases. For towns where glitz survives on credit and ugly lives decay in the hot shadow of Los Angeles, visit the County of OC Noir.
Matthew C. Funk is a professional writer in marketing for corporate America, a writing mentor and the author of several manuscripts that illuminate the beauty of human extremes. A graduate of the Professional Writing MFA at USC, his online work is featured at sites such as ThugLit; Powder Burn Flash; Thrillers, Killers and Chillers; A Twist of Noir; Pulp Metal Magazine; Flash Fiction Offensive; Six Sentences Volume 3 and his Web domain.