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Michelle Newby is contributing editor at Lone Star Literary Life, reviewer for Foreword Reviews, freelance writer, member of the National Book Critics Circle, and blogger at www.TexasBookLover.com. Her reviews appear or are forthcoming in Pleiades Magazine, Rain Taxi, World Literature Today, South85 Journal, The Review Review, Concho River Review, Monkeybicycle, Mosaic Literary Magazine, Atticus Review, and The Collagist.
Melissa Ginsburg was born and raised in Houston, and attended the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. She is the author of the poetry collection Dear Weather Ghost and the poetry chapbook Arbor. She teaches creative writing and literature at the University of Mississippi in Oxford.
Ecco, 978-0-06-242970-4, hardcover (also available as an ebook, an audio book, and on Audible), 208 pgs., $25.99
April 12, 2016
“Houston was always flooding, the whole city built atop paved wetlands. The storm kept the sky dark, and the streetlights glowed through the morning. I stepped into my rubber boots and splashed to the barbecue shack around the corner.”
When Charlotte Ford returns to her apartment with her brisket and beer, Detective Ash is waiting on the landing to tell her that Danielle, her friend since high school, has been found bludgeoned to death in a seedy motel room. Danielle and her mother, Sally, have been estranged for years but Sally has recently contacted Charlotte, offering her a $1,000 bribe for Danielle’s phone number, so she could tell Danielle about an inheritance. Charlotte has met Danielle for a drink just a few days before her death to tell her about Sally and offer her half the money.
Charlotte has thought Danielle’s stint in prison had finally cured her of the drugs and her future looked brighter, even if she has been “modeling” in porn films with her new friends. As Charlotte simultaneously searches for answers and tries to escape her feelings with vodka that “tasted like air-conditioning, crisp and clean” and cocaine like “fluorescent light in my bloodstream,” she moves ever closer to the killer and becomes a target herself.
Sunset City, poet Melissa Ginsburg’s first novel, is a soulful, sexy, dangerous noir. In all good noir the location is an essential character in the story—and Houston’s slippery underbelly fits the bill. It’s all here: the bayous, ship channel refineries, Memorial Park, River Oaks, Montrose, Rudyard’s, and, always, real estate, in a city “that never stopped, it reached and reached,” where money exerts a “gravitational pull.” Ginsburg’s simple plot allows atmosphere to suffuse the story. You’ll feel the humidity on your upper lip and see the vivid, chemical sunsets for which the book is named.
Charlotte, the most fully developed character, is sympathetic but frustrating in her self-destruction, as if she wants to beat someone else to the punch, feeling like “a poison I couldn’t stop swallowing.” She comes undone in the immediate aftermath of Danielle’s murder, on a drug and booze-soaked mental flight, trying to numb her grief. Ginsburg writes one of the best altered states I’ve ever read, both darkly humorous and melancholy, when Charlotte ends up in the drunk tank and it becomes “clear that someone, at some point during the night, had made a bad decision.”
As befits a poet, Ginsburg is a master of the startlingly evocative turn of phrase. Charlotte’s first-person narrative is littered with them. She observes of a man in a bar that she’s not particularly interested in: “He was boring, but I didn’t mind, because his attention was interesting.” Detective Ash “stared at me like you would a sculpture, without caring what it thought.” After viewing crime-scene photos, Charlotte observes that Danielle’s “fake boobs sat on top of the wrecked body, intact, pointing the wrong way.” Talk about verisimilitude.
Ginsburg presents a menu of suspects and drops clues nonchalantly—expertly—as if she’s writing a fifth noir, not a first. She has created a page-turner with a pitch-perfect conclusion. Sunset City is poetry noir.
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