In the classic noir film, The Lady from Shanghai, a husband trails his wife and her lover to the hall of mirrors in a fun house. Although he’s trying his best to shoot her, he keeps shooting the mirrors instead. Unfortunately for him she has a gun, too, and the reflections don’t fool her.
In this anthology, one of several of the outstanding Noir series published by Akashic Books, the myths about bucolic, wealthy Long Island are shattered like glass in a carnival. In the 17 stories included within, the characters are the underserved, the lower-middle class, the poor migrant and immigrant workers, and the elderly
Each story takes place in a different town on the island and highlights the unknown dysfunction of its residents. The authors clearly know the interior and exterior terrain of the natives. In this book, the land mass is more a culture than a point of geography.
In “Semiconscious,” by Steven Wishnia, the protagonist has lost his sense of belonging, of home. “He’d been cast out east by successive waves of layoffs and two divorces.” A reporter for a Lake Rokonkoma newspaper, he covers a story in which a Mexican immigrant has been beaten to death. The journalist has a computer whiz research local hate websites, and learns that all of the writers on these sites endorse the killing. Their comments make the reporter feel cut off from civilization and morality. Unlike the victim’s community, he doesn’t believe that God will bring the killer to justice.
Tim Tomlinson’s main character in “Snow Job” has a proactive approach to making things right. The story is set in Wading River where a retiree wraps up garbage and excrement in beautiful gift boxes and anonymously leaves the “presents” at malls. When one of his treats results in a deadly encounter, he becomes the victim of a blackmailer. The gift maker asks for help from a friend and gets more or less what he bargained for. The author makes the prankster and the blackmailer equally contemptible.
Extortion is also the main event in the Richie Narvaez story, “Ending in Paumanok.” Here a Stony Brook University professor coerces her brother-in-law into giving her money. She’s being squeezed, in turn, by one of her students who is also her lover. She might be the academic, but the author makes it clear that she’s not as smart as she thinks. The story has ironic twists. It’s difficult to differentiate between the victims and the victimizers. The climax is partly poetic justice and deeply disturbing.
Sarah Weinman, on the other hand, has a very satisfying ending in her story, “Past President.” Its protagonist is the first female head of a shul in Great Neck. She gets the job when her predecessor is murdered. A former NYPD detective, the new president has relocated to her hometown to renew her faith. She handles the blatant sexism of older members of the synagogue with diplomacy. Still, against her better judgment, she gets roped into investigating the murder. Then the killer comes after her—with surprising results.
More of a shock than a surprise is the mindset of the characters in “Thy Shiny Car in the Night.” The town of Northport is made up primarily of Mafiosi, according to writer Nick Mamatas. They are enforcers and money launderers. They send their children to colleges and expect them to come home and work in the “family business.” The narrator tries to get his father to stop beating up people who don’t want to launder money and want to open up legitimate businesses.
“What about the government? What about the law?”
Listen, if the government cared, they’d just municipalize garbage collection and put us all out of business. We’re more efficient than they are, even with the occasional present we have to buy, or a labor action here and there.” According to the father, organized crime is one of the best examples of capitalism that America has to offer.
For African Americans in the South, the lure to Long Island wasn’t just free enterprise. It was the escape from homicidal racism, as in “Jabo’s,” by Amani Scipio. However, many simply exchanged one horrific life for another. The story’s narrator outlines the hardships that Black migrant workers in the 1950s endured to get work on potato farms in Bridgehampton. In one passage, she describes the living conditions in the camps where the laborers lived. “One such social worker saw my mother, almost eight months pregnant, kneeling down by a stream with no shoes on in the cold, trying to catch fish.” The social worker helps as much as she can, but there are deeper wounds that are festering in the young mother. Scipio presents the before and after of a life without hope.
Despair is more visual in “Boob Noir,” a comic strip by Jules Feiffer. It begins with a possibly suicidal man walking along the beach in Southampton. He explains the difficulties he has forgetting about a dead woman’s breasts. How she died is never really clear. How he came to be in the same room with her naked body seems to elude him as well. What is clear is that notifying the authorities is the farthest thing from his mind. In Feiffer’s rendering, the man is more concerned with her anatomy than he is with her death.
On the other hand, the doctor in the Garden City of “Anjali’s America,” written by Qanta Ahmed, MD hopes that a murder was committed by one of her former patients. The arranged marriage of this patient was horrible, as described by the doctor. The young bride was abused to the point that her womb was literally destroyed by her husband. The doctor, who shares the same cultural background as the former patient, escaped a similar fate. “And yet I found a way out. I won a place in residency to study medicine in New York. But I was not brighter than she—just stronger, hungrier, more defiant.” The doctor believes that many women with her background are not so fortunate.
The fates do not smile on the protagonist in “Seven Eleven” either. Author Tim McLoughlin’s story takes place in Wantagh. In the piece, the narrator insists that he can’t help but gamble because he was born on July 11th. As the writer describes him, the narrator is really an addict. Slowly, the addiction takes away everything and everyone he loves. Unlike the other characters in this anthology, he is in complete denial about who and what he is. In this passage, he loses the only transportation he has: “Whether it had been towed by the municipality for some infraction, or seized by the now rightful owners, was irrelevant; …This morning, after the first truly cold night spent on a concrete floor, I walked the two miles back.” There is a big difference between resourcefulness and psychosis, as the author defines through this character.
As all the stories in this anthology attest, the truth is there whether you like it or not
Long Island may well be the playground of the rich and famous, but it is also a never-ending hell for the poor and anonymous.
At the end of The Lady from Shanghai, the husband and wife die with cracked mirrors all around them. No more illusions. The wife’s lover simply walks away.