Los Angeles Review of Books

IT’S HARD TO QUANTIFY how much space New York occupies in the world of literature. Most of the publishing industry is there, and so are a disproportionate number of writers, who tell a disproportionate number of New York stories. If you get all your knowledge from fiction (which I pretty much do), it’s almost easy to forget that New York is a whole state, and not just the greedy five boroughs of New York City.

Buffalo is the second-most populous city in New York, and until recently, the only reason I’d paid it any attention was that a handful of its white residents participated in a strange PBS web documentary called The Whiteness Project a couple years back. They said some predictably putrid things that made me wonder about this place in an idle, probably unjustly dismissive way. When I found out that Ed Park — Korean-American novelist, editor, and proud, affectionate Buffalo native — was editing Buffalo Noir with fellow Buffalonian Brigid Hughes for the Akashic Noir Series, I decided fair was fair, and that I’d have to check it out.

The anthology features 12 dark tales of Buffalo, written by 13 authors with strong ties to Buffalo. Each story represents a different neighborhood and cross-section of the city, and the resulting collection feels like a vivid, comprehensive tour of a distinctive place, administered by locals. There’s nothing quite like noir to shine a light, after all.

I talked to Ed Park about Buffalo, Buffalonians, and Buffalo Noir via email.

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STEPH CHA: How did you and Brigid Hughes pick the stories for Buffalo Noir? Were there submissions, or did you have the roster in mind from the beginning?

ED PARK: One of the motivating factors in proposing the book to Akashic was the mention of Buffalo and environs in an old Lawrence Block novel that Hard Case Crime reissued. I’d long been a fan of Block’s, and I knew he was a Buffalo transplant (to New York City) like me, but hadn’t come across any references to his hometown before. Happily, he agreed to contribute, and I love how his story locates one of his most devilish creations — the insanely competent lawyer Ehrengraf — in the city. (His occasional pseudonym, Jill Emerson, set an entire non-criminous novel there — A Week as Andrea Benstock, from 1975.)

Brigid and I drew up a list of writers who hailed from the area — people like Block, Joyce Carol Oates, Connie Porter (All-Bright Court), and John Wray (Lowboy) — and just as importantly, authors who currently lived there. For example, I reached out to Kim Chinquee (“Hand”), whose short fiction I’d admired for years in NOON, and she mentioned other local authors. (It turned out she was a pretty recent Buffalo transplant.) A bit of time passed. I did a reading with SJ Rozan (“Parkside”), here in New York, and discovered that she’d studied architecture in Buffalo! And when folks heard that the anthology was under way, we started getting tips and referrals. That’s how Lissa Marie Redmond appeared on our radar. She recently retired from her job as a Buffalo homicide detective.

I have a better sense of Buffalo now than I did before reading the collection, but I’m curious as to how you perceive the place. What’s its personality? How do you talk it up for outsiders?

The notion of Buffaloness is pretty bound up in my psyche, even though I haven’t lived there in a long time. How my mental impression of it correlates to its current reality, I’m not sure. It was squarely a rust belt town when I grew up, a once prosperous city fallen on hard times, though now things seem to be on the upswing a bit. There’s a down-to-earth quality, a semi-Midwestern feel though it’s in New York State (not “upstate,” but western New York). Snow, lots of it — but lovely summers. Amazing architecture: there’s a splendid Frank Lloyd Wright house, but even more the ghost of the Larkin Building, demolished in the 1950s, sometimes called the first modern office building.

And if you like Buffalo wings (see below), a pilgrimage is in order. I’m convinced they can’t be reproduced anywhere else; I no longer eat them if I’m not in Buffalo. (A recent sampling of wings from the Anchor Bar, the acknowledged birthplace of Buffalo wings, confirmed this theory that does not need confirming.)

It’s reductive to yoke a city to its sports teams, but here I go anyway: Buffalo’s had professional football and hockey teams since I was born, and neither has won the Super Bowl or Stanley Cup, respectively, despite some close calls. When I was in town over the summer I saw people wearing a T-shirt showing the latter, and the slogan “Just one before I die.” It’s grim but it’s pretty funny. And an online search reveals that there’s a Bills version, too. Maybe I should get one.

Are there any particular stories or moments or details in this book that popped out and made you think, “Oh, that’s so Buffalo”? I notice there wasn’t even one mention of Buffalo wings.

An oversight! (We’ll have to include a Buffalo wings reference in the second edition.) Every story had something that rooted it to the city, the names and descriptions of neighborhoods (Allentown, Nottingham Terrace), buildings (Parkside Candy — where a scene in The Natural was filmed), and personalities (Rick James) instantly evoked this place for me. And of course the weather, particularly in Lissa’s chilly tale.

I’m trying to think through all the books I’ve read, and I can’t even come up with one that takes place in Buffalo. What are the great Buffalo stories? How is the city talked about in literature?

There’s Lauren Belfer’s City of Light, from about 20 years ago, a historical novel set in Buffalo at a fascinating moment in the city’s life, around the turn of the century. (As every Buffalonian knows, President William McKinley was assassinated in Buffalo in 1901. There’s a novel I haven’t read, The Temple of Music, that centers around that event, which we can read way too much into and think of as the city’s primal wound.) The late Gabrielle Burton’s Heartbreak Hotel. Stephan Talty, Greg Ames, and Sandra Block are writers who have recently set whole books in Buffalo. Also, there’s a great part in one of Richard Stark’s Parker novels — The Outfit — that unfolds in Buffalo.

There are 12 stories in this collection, and they really run the gamut in style, subject matter, even genre. What do you think makes these stories noir? How does noir help explain Buffalo?

Noir is a mood, a stance, a way of seeing, but there’s no single right way of expressing it. The voices here work in different registers: grim, gossipy, jaded, detached.  I think it would get tiring to read a dozen stories that all affected the same tone, but taken together, they work as a definition of the term coined on the cover: Buffalo noir. As for the local angle, I keep thinking of Vincent Gallo’s Buffalo ’66 — a perfectly executed noir vision of his hometown. It was chilly, intense, absurd, and monomaniacal, built around the city’s other primal wound: the “wide right” field goal miss in Super Bowl XXV. Put another way, a review of our anthology mentioned a recent moniker for Buffalo that’s apropos: The City of No Illusions. That’s pure noir.

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Steph Cha is the noir editor for LARB. She is the author of Follow Her Home, Beware Beware, and Dead Soon Enough, all published by St. Martin’s Minotaur.

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