Book Review: Berkeley Noir

By Jenny Hayes

Berkeley Noir
collects tales from my California hometown, a place where, the anthology’s editors write, “even outcasts can feel at home.” Editors Jerry Thompson and Owen Hill introduce the collection: “The search through darkness for an authentic, eclectic voice is the most important ingredient in the rich stew that is Berkeley, California.” Akashic Books’ Noir series launched in 2004 and now has well over 100 titles collecting sinister stories from locations around the world. The books are a great way to get a glimpse of unfamiliar cities or to relive places you know well—a perfect escape for this time of sheltering in place.

I was eager to see how the book’s 16 authors would find some version of that “authentic, eclectic voice” and how they would infuse some Berkeley flavor into their dark tales. The first story, Lexi Pandell’s “Hill House,” delivered an element I’d hoped to find in the collection: well-to-do intellectuals who are shadier than they appear. The narrator, Mariana, is a student, house-sitting for a couple of days for an esteemed U.C. Berkeley professor. Pandell perfectly describes the feeling of being a temporary visitor in a borrowed opulent house, moving from tentative exploration to brazen snooping. The potential for danger is everywhere, even in moments that could be mundane: when Mariana slices into a cucumber from the professor’s lavish garden, it’s rotten inside, and she cuts her finger on the knife. As with many noir tales, Mariana is pulled into danger by her own complicated, conflicted desires and by her past rising up to meet her.

The standout stories in the collection are the weird ones—perhaps not coincidentally, they are also the ones that seem most uniquely Berkeley. “Every Man and Every Woman Is a Star” by Nick Mamatas feels like Berkeley from the very first line: “My stalkers come in two flavors—communists and occultists.” The narrator, Dawn, is a former magician and revolutionary with a murderous past. She now lives in an RV with her son and teaches free yoga classes in Ho Chi Minh Park, where she gets tangled up in the capitalist schemes of an evil tech billionaire from her past. The characters are extreme yet true-to-life, such as one of the aforementioned stalkers who was “born too late for campus riots and the Free Speech Movement, but right on time for ninety-second punk rock songs about Reagan nuking the world and polyamorous tangles with patchouli-drenched sex-positive sex bunnies and occasionally their mothers.” Berkeley details permeate this story, as when Dawn describes “Peace and Freedom” meetings full of people arguing with each other, a perfect encapsulation of a familiar Berkeley dynamic.

Another great piece, Mara Faye Lethem’s “Twin Flames,” is narrated by Núria Callas Perales, who arrived in 1991 to “a Berkeley that seemed to be still living off the fumes of the late sixties.” She becomes the reluctant idol of a cult of “Núrites” who believe she’s the recipient of a “soul transfer” from an older mystic named Louise. Núria is unconvinced, recounting dryly, “[T]hey say I was searching for my path, following the angel number, and eventually experiencing an incompatibility between the upper and lower chakras. I can’t really corroborate that.” Much of the actual happenings are left ambiguous, taking on mythical qualities that feel true to a Berkeley story, as does the backdrop of military conflicts in South America, a reference to the third floor of Moe’s Books possibly being a portal of some sort, and the inclusion of the infamous community backyard hot tub, a Berkeley institution that I sometimes can’t believe isn’t just a figment of the collective creepy imagination.

There are a few pieces which didn’t particularly grab me. That’s not a complaint; it’s rare for any anthology to perfectly suit one’s taste. But I did find it disappointing that many of the stories, even some of the gripping ones, felt like they could have taken place nearly anywhere. Legendary crime writer Barry Gifford’s short-short “Barroom Butterfly” zips along with a cool vintage vibe, but other than the street names it doesn’t feel specific to the area. “Wifebeater Tank Top” by J.M. Curet is classic noir in a modern setting: protagonist Red, out on bail and hoping to stay clean, can’t seem to avoid getting sucked back into the criminal life, partly due to his infatuation with the story’s femme fatale in her “merciless little dress.” I could picture it all going down in West Berkeley, but the characters and happenings could also have been placed in any number of cities. Even when local spots are included, their descriptions sometimes feel too generic, as when the distinctive Missouri Lounge on San Pablo is described by Red only as “the kind of place a guy like me could get into some seriously regrettable shit.”

Then there’s “Boy Toy” by Jim Nisbet, which does not take place in Berkeley at all. It begins on a boat docked at Yacht Harbor, which according to the book’s map is actually in Emeryville, before cruising around the bay. Phrases like “the halyard’s venerable bronze pelican shackle, each with a sennit he’d rove himself” and “the shriek of spars and rigging and the flogging of the ruined jib” were baffling to this Berkeley girl. So was the fact that two other stories in the book also prominently featured boats, something which would be way down at the end of the list of things that come to mind when I think about my hometown. Nisbet’s piece might have worked better in a general Bay Area collection, or perhaps in something called Boat Noir, where its bevy of nautical nuances could find a more suitable audience.

After feeling a bit frustrated by the lack of Berkeley-ness in so many of the stories, I was happy that the final piece hit a perfect Berkeley vibe. “Righteous Kill” by Owen Hill follows a book scout turned unlicensed detective as his half-wasted, half-revolutionary group of friends-with-various-benefits drag him into a daring scheme that goes dark. Hill has a knack for brief observations that perfectly nail a gentrifying neighborhood, now filled with “chunky guys with beards, buried in their devices” and “live/work castles full of toys, set among the junkyards and bad roads.” And the inclusion of the group’s “cheap-rent war stories” from days of yore —“I paid a  hundred bucks, down the street, for a walk-in closet in a house full of commies!”—is a realistic detail no Berkeley collection should be without.

Pieces like these, with Berkeley in their very DNA, made me frustrated with the ones which seemed to use Berkeley like a finishing spice, sprinkling in a few dashes of street and business names so they fit the bill. I would have loved it if the book were filled with stories that could only take place in Berkeley. I wanted scenes in locations like Lawrence Hall of Science, People’s Park, the Ashby flea market, the Little Farm at Tilden Park, or gone-but-not-forgotten joints like Brennan’s Restaurant and Fondue Fred. Not to mention more quintessential Berkeley characters—where are the crusty punks and the Telegraph street vendors and the weird old hippies veiling sketchy deeds in a free-love incense-scented fog?

Of course, Berkeley contains too many multitudes to cover in one book, and the Berkeley elements that feel iconic to me are not the same for everyone. Still, having so many stories with a less specific setting seems like a wasted opportunity to make this collection really shine.

And seriously: why are there so many boats?

Jenny Hayes lives in Seattle and is a graduate of the low-residency MFA program at UC Riverside–Palm Desert. Her fiction has appeared in Hobart, Geometry, Spartan, Jenny Magazine, and other interesting places.