Jane and I are arguing again. The good news: we’ve curtailed our fighting to more civil discourses, where we listen intently, respectful to one another before we jump down the other’s throat (and no, we haven’t kissed yet). After all, we are intellectuals, curious what the other has to say, so we can tell them, that whatever they just said, they’re dead wrong. However, the frequency of these eruptions, in this tight of quarters, seems to take up all our time and space. Today began quiet, a nearly perfect morning where we were both reading, maybe trying to remember what the sun was like; Jane closed her book, finished, reached for another in the stack, and gasped, “Gross! Is this porn?”
“Oh, never mind,” she said, “It’s a book that is packaged almost like vintage pornography. There’s like, hookers on here, made to look like one of those padded oversized 80s VHS tapes.”
“Oh, right. Yeah, I read it, really dug it. That’s L.A. Stories: Three Grindhouse Novellas from Uncle B Publications — Alec Cizec’s imprint, the author/editor who’s been publishing Pulp Modern for over a decade.”
“Ah, that guy… I’ve heard about him.”
“Hopefully good stuff. A couple years ago, him and one of the authors in here, Scotch Rutherford, were involved in some dramatic upheaval in the crime-fiction community, far too convoluted to explain, though I have my own thoughts on it, no real allegiances to either side. The important thing is that these guys remain exceptional writers, and since removing themselves from the indie crime-fiction crowd, they’ve created a new sub-genre with this release: Grime-Fiction. This book a sort of a doubling-down on their penchant for sleaze; a chest-beating, fire-breathing belch, a revamped arrival for these veterans. And they’ve injected the collection with some younger upstart blood — crime-writer Andrew Miller, whose story was promised to be the most disgusting yet instead, I thought it was kind of ‘sweet?’”
“Sweet, huh?” says Jane, sticking her tongue out, like gag me, please. She flips through it, kinda laughs.
“I dunno, these guys seem obsessed with prostitutes, I’ve counted ten racial slurs so far, and a lot of just, like, insane cruelty.”
“Yeah, it’s gnarly,” I reply, “Like I said, they had to create a whole other genre for it, which says a lot for this book’s idiosyncrasies. There’s nothing quite like it out there right now. Though I will say — and maybe it’s because I read too much Dennis Cooper and I’m desensitized now — but I personally don’t think there’s anything really shocking in this book, like how they were marketing it, calling themselves controversial or even transgressive, both are really off the mark. It’s silly when an author calls themselves controversial — that should be a reaction to your work after the public reads it. Otherwise, it just feels like an empty PR move. I don’t care who tried to ‘cancel’ you — you should simply stand by your work, rather than reduce it to potential detractor’s pettiness.”
“Oh, well now I have to read this…” said Jane, burying her head in the book.
I continue. “The thing I do appreciate about this collection, beyond the writing being really top-notch, is that these three guys don’t sugarcoat the fact that ‘progress’ tends to be deceptive, that not much has changed between today and 1979 where these stories take place, that America remains a haunted, inherently evil country. There’s no adherence to tidy morality in these stories, so it feels a lot more convincing. You get the feeling these guys — especially Scotch — knows these worlds, these characters very well. You’re not listening but I’m gonna keep talking…”
“I can listen and read, you know…” says Jane, pulling the book up past any sliver of eye contact.
“Anyway, with these three authors, you get the feeling that Alec is the one with brilliant imagination — his story “Temple of the Rat” opens the trio, and it definitely ain’t slow, but it slow-churns like a dreadful fever dream, a real hallucinatory ooze through 1979 Hollywood, where hidden hands roam between the studios and the streets, when close-ups of Jesus-freaks and doomsday cults blur into porno stables and cannibals living double-lives as industry types. It’s peppered with italic transmissions from Hank Shepherd, a right-wing talk radio host spewing so much bad vibe you can feel the white noise of the airwaves really get its hooks in you, like tentacles pulling you further into L.A.’s contrarian urban quicksand.”
“Okay, what about this guy Scotch Rutherford — he’s kinda hot, looks like Mark Wahlberg but like, dangerous…” says Jane, pushing the book down to reveal her smirk
“Oh yeah, so Scotch was the editor of the now defunct Switchblade Magazine, which totally earned the claim of a ‘no-limits hard-boiled outlaw fiction” journal. His story here, The Roach King of Paradise is so hard-boiled, it’d be suffocating if it didn’t move so swiftly. In his debut novella here, it’s broken up into intertwining pieces of quick flash, all revolving around The Paradise Hotel, a gangster haven of prostitution, human trafficking, and murder — you just tell the Roach King he has to ‘spray twice’ when you need him to clean up a fatal mess. On a street/gut level, Scotch’s story may feel the most authentic and immersive of the three. Unafraid to lean into some of the rawest gangster slang and their customs, The Roach King of Paradise mines some of the bleakest depths of human behavior, stuff I know is out there that’s difficult to think about, but somebody has to.”
“In a way, it’s privileged not to think about it,” says Jane. “Some people don’t have that option — they have to live it. I mean, it’s nothing I want to fuck with…”
“Well, the good news is that you don’t have to — you can put that book down any time you want.”
“Okay, what about the last story, ‘Lady Tomahawk?’ I like the name.”
“Ah, so that’s Andrew Miller’s offering. Andy’s actually an old, dear friend of mine. We used to work at the same grocery store in Los Angeles, and he was one of the few people there I didn’t have to feel self-conscious around — he never seemed to mind if I came in still reeking of alcohol from the night before. Every morning Andy and I would trade war stories with our ‘rehabilitated’ gangster co-workers, then spend the day talking books and literary gossip between the two of us, trading notes on our own writing projects.”
“Did I ask for your life story, or his story?”
“Anyway, Andy has slowly built a substantial catalog of short, sharp, immaculately detailed historical crime-fiction in Switchblade, Pulp Modern, and Close to the Bone, so this novella will be gratifying for those who’ve been following him. Andy was telling people that ‘Lady Tomahawk’ was the most disgusting thing he’d ever written, but again, I didn’t find it shocking at all — beyond some bloodshed, it has a very sweet, sincere, and satisfying ending. Even if it was incest, it was consensual, kind of romantic, even. I’d even go so far as to say that for such a grimey book, Andy’s story lends a sophistication to the whole thing. So, if Alec has the imagination, and Scotch has the authenticity, I’d say Andy’s strength is incredible attention to detail in his research when creating these alternate histories — like the best parts of Ellroy and Tarantino with the stark language of Ellis.”
Jane gets up, walks across the room — I see her purse her lips, nod her head, make a kind of cool, cool, cool… like she’s sort of over my commentary, wants to change the subject. “Okay, I’m gonna show you something, you just have to promise not to tell…” she says.
“Who the fuck would I tell?” I say, looking around the dark empty room we’ve been trapped in for nearly a year.
She giggles. “I have a feeling you’re about to get very social, collaborative again. It’s just a hunch.”
“Never mind for now…” she says, curtly. “I wanted to show you where I keep all my books, my personal collection.” Jane reaches into the black wall, opens a door I swear wasn’t there before, the doorknob painted black. “Here, come…” she says, playfully wagging her finger.
I get up, follow her into a walk-in closet, also painted black, nothing but bookshelves, thoughtfully organized by author who I immediately notice are all female. I’m sort of pissed — not mad, but disappointed because 1.) I thought she was going to finally show me what she’s been writing on her clipboard and 2.) Jane often gives me hell for not writing more about female authors when this whole time she’s been hoarding them. She grabs a thin zine from between two books.
“Wait, you have another new Susan Rukeyser?” I say, taking it from her hands.
“Yup. What is Reflected, it’s called — a little chapbook, like her last one. This is actually an old story she’s re-printed on her own imprint World Split Open Press, since the mag it originally appeared in, The View from Here, is now defunct. What’s cool is that this goes back to Rukeyser’s more noirish roots, that gritty mysterious vibe her debut novel Not on Fire, Only Dying.
“Nice — it’s like she’s stylistically prepping us for her novel-in-progress The Worst Kind of Girl, at least based on the first chapter she just leaked online. I would actually just call her a noir writer. I mean, James Ellroy blurbed her first novel…”
“Yeah, I think you’re kinda right,” says Jane. “And this story What is Reflected would fit really well in, say, an issue of Rock and Hard Place. She’s like, progressive feminist noir.”
“Totally. Like a more succinct Joyce Carol Oats, less voices constantly overlapping, even though I love that about JCO. “
“It’s cool what she did here — the story was prompted by Rukeyser spotting a building in NYC that seemed out of place compared to the rest of the gentrifying neighborhood, as if this structure was being closed in on. This tight yet contemplative story of layered vengeance is how her mind reacted to the anomaly, basically. The cover art is a photo she took of the building. It’s a lot more violent than what we’re used to with Rukeyser — typically, she may allude to violence, but here she makes no grey area when illustrating what the protagonist does to this lurching guy named Mac who’s now tied up: …
“I got the hunting knife. The blade was curved, for separating an animal’s pelt from its meat. With quick strokes I sliced off the moles polka-dotting his torso. The ugliness fell from him easily.”
“Wow, maybe Rukeyser is more akin to grime-fiction than we thought,” I say. Jane laughs.
“Well, I guess it’s sort of fascinating that the one element bridging the more PC progressive side of crime/noir and I guess what we are calling grime-fiction stuff like L.A. Stories — is that all they can all agree on the instinct to communicate absolute brutality; though, where those circles eclipse, the rest of their sphere might as well be of two different planets. You’ve got real outspoken crime guys sticking their bad guys in wood-chippers very unapologetically, in the name of morality, then you’ve got guys like Cizec, Rutherford, and Miller’s stories where there’s really no good guys, where everyone is guilty — as if these characters are being punished by their mere existence.”
“Which side would you rather fuck with?” I ask.
“I don’t know. Neither. I feel sort of bad though — I feel like I’ve been fucking with you, you know?” she says.
“What do you mean?”
Instead of answering, Jane hurls herself into the nearest bookshelf, arms flailing, her hands plowing into whole tiers of books that tumble and thump into piles on the ground, until every shelf is empty.