Gwendolyn Zepeda, Ed.
Paperback, 978-1-6177-5706-8, (also available as an e-book), 256 pgs., $15.95
May 7, 2019
When Edgar Allen Poe proclaimed two centuries ago that no one should write anything that can’t be read in one sitting, he couldn’t have anticipated how well that constraint serves today’s frenetic, uber-scheduled modern millennium. The Houston Noir short story collection is what Poe meant: solid, quick, satisfying reads that fit perfectly between appointments, in waiting rooms, carpool lines, coffee breaks, or when you just need a quick escape from reality.
Editor and 2013 Houston poet laureate Gwendolyn Zepeda has assembled a wicked collection of fourteen engaging, compact, and tightly-woven short stories. Noir, the unifying concept, promises the dark side zeitgeist of sprawling, steaming, pancake Houston. The book delivers, and while in any box of assorted chocolates there are usually a couple you might spit out if no one’s looking, some stories outshined others, yet I found all of the stories to be darkly satisfying in a variety of ways.
Anton DiSclafani’s “Tangled” inscribes a mien of decaying, upper-crust, old-school Houston with a palpable angst worthy of McMurtry’s Patsy, lulling the reader with slick-varnished ennui right up to the fulfillment of Iron Mike Tyson’s warning, “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth,” as well as Poe’s third law of fiction that stories should end with a climax.
My favorite in the collection is Adrienne Perry’s creation, “One in the Family,” a kaleidoscope of vivid, tactile sensation; quirky, poetic musing; brilliant juxtaposition; and an innovative extratextual, on-page graphic experiment I can’t begin to describe, but it works. The writing is visceral, habitable; Houston: “August brought Hell’s furies. Walking over asphalt hot enough to melt, I became a blister. Red, shiny and taut.”
In “Photo Album,” Sarah Cortez mesmerizes with dreamy, livable, layered, poetic prose a mind’s-eye moving picture conjured from an unseen photo album, another inventive device like Perry’s visual experiment mentioned above. It works—the reader lives hope, fear, regret, loss in a haunting, cave wall shadow like Plato’s Meno, what’s not there made vivid by the shadow of what is.
Robert Boswell’s “The Use of Landscape” turns loose a sociopathic Bud Davis of Urban Cowboy, only in this Noir version he has a PhD to Pam’s GED, which inverts the intersection of “haves” and “have nots,” predator and prey. Boswell smacks the reader with another Poe theorem rewritten and smirking from his prose, “nothing is more poignant than the death of a stupid woman.” You almost feel guilty for having relished the story at the same time you feel compelled to savor it again.
“A Dark Universe” by Larry Watts was the only comparative underreach in the assortment, partly because he breached the conventional viewpoint wall (in a later story, ”Happy Hunting,” Icess Fernandez Rojas does the same thing, thrice), which I was willing to grant if the dénouement justified the excursion—which it didn’t—and partly because the characters fell short of their early potential. So, the story finishes with a sigh rather than a gasp.
You’ll be compelled to reread “Xitlali Zaragoza, Curandera,” Reyes Ramirez’s engrossing, tactile, sensual daytrip into an unsettled spirit realm. Of all the stories, this one most seamlessly, wholly integrates the reader emotionally and sensually into a mounting, foreboding netherworld—which is the story’s engine room—worthy of the malevolent subtext that drives Christopher Marlowe’s devilish Faustus.
There’s more, much more richness, from other talented writers—too many to fit into this review. So, I’ll simply sum up this short fiction collection in two words: “brilliant” for the writers’ craftsmanship, and “rewarding” for the reader’s experience. Edgar Allen Poe, storied master of dark fiction who probably earned more of his income from literary criticism, would likely concur from both perspectives.
Gwendolyn Zepeda was born in Houston, Texas in 1971 and attended the University of Texas at Austin. She was the first Latina blogger and began her writing career on the Web in 1997 as one of the founding writers of entertainment site Television Without Pity. Since that time, Zepeda has published three critically acclaimed novels through Hachette, four award-winning children’s books through Arte Publico Press, a short-story collection, and two books of poems. She was Houston’s very first poet laureate, serving a two-year term from 2013 to 2015.
Zepeda lives in Houston with her family and pets.