August 2010

Alan Good

fiction

The Dark End of the Street: New Stories of Sex and Crime by Today's Top Authors edited by Jonathan Santlofer and S.J. Rozan

The only thing missing from The Dark End of the Street: New Stories of Sex and Crime by Today’s Top Authors is an exclamation point. I’m not going to complain about that long, descriptive title: it saves me from having to tell you what the book is about. Some of those top authors are literary writers (Jonathan Lethem, Francine Prose) and some are crime writers (Michael Connelly, Stephen L. Carter). The editors, S. J. Rozan and Jonathan Santlofer, were smart enough to include their own stories in the collection, thereby securing their places among Today’s Top Authors!

Let me start with the story I liked. It’s called “The Perfect Triangle,” it’s written by crime writer Michael Connelly, and it’s about pubic hair. I also liked the illustrations, which were drawn by Santlofer. (I don’t want to confuse you: there are no illustrations of pubic hair. The drawings, in black and white, are of people, and they’re there to enhance the noirish mood.)

The stories by Lethem and Prose weren’t bad, and I enjoyed the story by Scottish crime writer Val McDermid. I didn’t like it at first, but I got wrapped up in it after a couple pages. Then came the twist ending. Ho-hum. Santlofer’s story was -- what’s the expression? -- not exactly titillating, but good enough. It might have worked better on film. I don’t read a lot of crime fiction, but I suspect the problem with some of the better stories is inherent in the short story form: it’s hard to write a cracking page-turner in thirty pages or less.

Writing good sex is hard. Fortunately, I may have discovered a possible writing partner for my porno to end all pornos, which is loosely based on Robert Bork’s Slouching Towards Gomorrah: Modern Liberalism and American Decline. My cinematic masterpiece-in-progress, Slouching Towards Uranus, tells the story of left-wing space decadence. Slouching may be a porno, but it’s also a morality tale. All the violence and hardcore sex is a metaphor for evil and high taxes. Anyway, I’ve been looking for ways to improve upon porn language. “Fuck me hard, baby,” has a certain immediacy, but it’s not exactly original. The best dialogue I’ve come up with so far is “Bork me in the ass and call me a liberal,” and “Tickle my hangie ball and wedge your thumb inside my Plato’s Cave.” But I finally found inspiration after reading Patrick McCabe’s “Toytown Assorted.” His main character calls her nipple her “ickle brown nub.” I initially thought “ickle brown nub” referred to the clitoris, but the author clarifies thusly: “As he set to nibbling her nipple once again.” The nub lady’s name is Golly, and she is Irish, and she’s unsatisfied, and she refers to the penis as “the handle of his stomach,” and she wants some Spanish dude to bury his stomach’s handle up to her kidneys. It makes Portnoy’s Complaint look downright prudish.

Stephen L. Carter’s contribution, “The Hereditary Thurifer,” was, frankly, more boring than church, and it was improperly titled. I don’t want to ruin the whole story by defining a thurifer, so I’ll only say it has something to do with incense. One of the characters is a thurifer by birth, but “hereditary” isn’t the best way to describe him. There was, thirty years ago, a murder in the church. He tells the new rector all about it: “‘An affair of the heart, I’m afraid.” Turn the page: “‘The victim was a man named Bauer. Joshua Bauer. Killed, I’m afraid, just outside the office presently assigned to you.’” The young woman involved in that deadly affair of the heart was a looker: “‘The boys, I fear, chased her -- at times literally.’” The murder started out as an argument: “‘I’m afraid their argument grew violent.’” The congregants at this Episcopal Church are traditionalists. The cowardly thurifer’s verbal tic is either a comment on the fear that underlies traditionalism, or it’s just bad dialogue.

There’s a story by Joyce Carol Oates, but you knew that already. Her story is called “The Story of the Stabbing.” In case you forget, she reminds you of the title on just about every page, starting with the first paragraph: “Four years old she’d begun to hear in fragments and patches like handfuls of torn clouds the story of the stabbing in Manhattan that was initially her mother’s story.” (Italics, for once, mine.) There’s a little girl named Rhonda. All her parents ever do is talk about that time Rhonda’s mother saw a guy get stabbed in Manhattan. Oates gives us her best Emily Dickinson impression (i.e., she loves em dashes like 50 Cent, in “21 Questions,” loves his shorty). Consider the initial description of the stabbing, in which we see the stabber

in a wicked and seemingly practiced pendulum motion slashing the man’s throat just below his jaw, right to left, left to right causing blood to spring instantaneously into the air -- A six-foot arc of blood at least as Madeleine would describe it afterward, horrified -- for never had Madeleine Karr witnessed anything so horrible -- never would Madeleine Karr forget this savage attack in the unsparing clarity of a morning in late March -- the spectacle of a living man attacked, struck down, stabbed, throat slashed before her eyes.

Later we get Rhonda’s mom’s second husband Drex (who seems to view the world through white-power-colored glasses) retelling the story, how she was “trapped in her car and angry black boys smashing her car windows, dragging her out onto the street stab-stab-stabbing.”

“The Story of the Stabbing” is heavy on stabbing (a crime in most instances) but light on sex. Some of you won’t have time to read the whole story and would prefer to skip to the juicy part. Let me help you out: “By this time in all their lives of course everyone had heard the story of the stabbing many times in its many forms, the words had grown smooth like stones fondled by many hands.” Those are some slutty stones.

Joyce Carol Oates must be an important writer for she publishes eight hundred books a year and has a short story in every anthology and collection of short stories by contemporary authors -- oh when I think of it my blood runs cold, all the hours I’ve lost read-read-reading her books -- I just can’t see the attraction for reading an Oates book or story is about as fun for me as being stuck – trapped – confined -- er, encaged -- in a car for two days with a person with B.P.D. which is known as borderline personality disorder. I feel like I should throw in some kind of cloud simile here, but I’m just not that poetic. Maybe I’ll go fondle some stones.

The Dark End is not representative of today’s top authors’ top work. Reading this book is like watching the Pro Bowl. You know you’re looking at talented people, but you also know they’re not bringing their A-game.

Do we need new stories about sex and crime? Should you read this book? Does God exist? Where is the G-spot? I’m no good at answering deep questions. Thanks to this collection, though, I can tell you how to write good sex and/or crime fiction. First, choose thrilling, chilling, very active action verbs. See “Dragon’s Breath,” by Madison Smartt Bell. Her character presses “send” when he makes a call on his cell phone, but when he’s ready to “hang up,” as we said in the good old days, he doesn’t just press “end.” No: “the journalist killed the call.”

Second, the active voice must always get used, even when it’s really passive. Example: “The maid’s uniform got tossed into the crackling fire and buried under the weight of a thick log the flames licked.” That’s from “Midnight Stalkings,” by James Grady, and it raises an interesting question: does fire ever do anything besides crackle? Sometimes, we know, it pops. But does it ever snap? I put it to you that it does!

Third, omit the subject. Again, from “Midnight Stalkings”: “Erin lifted her gown and oh so slowly plucked the two tubes of acid from her stockings. Laid the acid tubes beside each other on the lone white towel like a terrified first-night honeymoon couple.”

Fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth, and ninth, italics, italics, italics, and similes, similes, similes!

Put it into practice:

The handsome reviewer flipped the page. Gazed at the verso page. Devoured like a terrifying word-devouring beast several paragraphs. Yawned. The book got put down on the arm of the comfortable old chair that he’d stolen years ago from his very first genuinely psychotic roommate. The book, open to Page 94, straddled the chair’s left arm like -- actually, a lot like the lady in the story “Scenarios,” by Lawrence Block, straddles Gerald with a G who is generally known as Jerry with a J, although neither one of those is really his real name. Got up and walked oh so lackadaisically over to check his email. His nose got scratched. His ass got seated in the uncomfortable wicker chair by the computer table. I wish someone would fucking email me. The Internet got surfed while time got fucking murdered.

The Dark End of the Street: New Stories of Sex and Crime by Today’s Top Authors edited by Jonathan Santlofer and S.J. Rozan
Bloomsbury USA
ISBN: 1596916834
304 Pages