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Mississippi Noir - Book Review

cover art for the book, Mississippi Noir, edited by Tom Franklin Photo Credit: Unknown cover art for the book, Mississippi Noir, edited by Tom Franklin

BOOKish BLOG: Mississippi Noir by Luvon Roberson 

“Mississippi boasts a notably corrupt state government and the highest rate of poverty in the country. No wonder, then, that area writers have found some pretty nasty stories to tell, several of which are included here: stories about a girl who murders her mother’s live-in boyfriend; a drug dealer who goes to extreme lengths to repay his source; a jilted lover who kills her ex-lover’s wife; college students who are having their fingers removed. And, of course, stories about sex and rage and white trash..” —Booklist

This Mississippi-born reviewer can add to the long list of “noir” features: It’s an acquired taste. And, MISSISSIPPI NOIR, edited by Tom Franklin, shows me noir may just be something I’ll need to develop a taste for. So if like me you’re a neophyte to this genre, you’ll be happy to find that Franklin has organized the collection of 16 short stories into four categories: Conquest & Revenge; Wayward Youth; Bloodlines; and Skipping Town. I think of this organizing as a guide, even an organizing principle: As a kind of taxonomic classification system, like classifying species of birds. Keep in mind that birds are the only living dinosaurs. An extinction event 66 million years ago killed off 75% of plants and all the dinosaurs, except the birds. Survival of the fittest, indeed. That killer-instinct to survive is how I came to recommend four stories for your initiation into noir.

Losing Her Religion, introduces us to Jada Wallace an African-American woman having a hot affair with a white lover and fellow teacher Derek. This is noir: Derek is married, of course; he and his wife are expecting a baby, and Jada is passionately fixated on having Derek for her own even though it’s obvious that he’s only in it for the excitement of illicit sex. Not used to begging a man for attention, Jada begs Derek to be hers. She is his faithful, fervent devotee. Her feelings for Derek are fueled like those of the true believers in a religious cult: No evidence is required as a basis for absolute devotion -- only faith is required. Faith in how right the believer to believe beyond reason or common sense or the advice of others. Author RaShell R. Smith-Spears tells us this about Jada:

“She would make her pilgrimage; she had made it every Sunday for the past month, and would continue to do so until she had reached the nirvana she sought. The journey itself was a sanctifying ritual, working her into a passionate fervor….. Already she felt sacred.” (p.53)

Did I mention that Smith-Spear’s story about Jada is in the Conquest & Revenge category? It’s not giving anything away to say that things don’t end well.     

Jaime Paige’s Boy and Girl Games Like Coupling is about a deadly game that the narrator plays and terrorizes Glen, his girlfriend. In only four brief pages this author somehow throws us in a place of fear and tension – never once revealing the narrator’s name or giving an explanation for anything he says or does. Masterful storytelling that fits perfectly in the Wayward Youth classification. And, even if you feel like running like a bat out of hell, you’d only find yourself in the company of the narrator and Glen, the girlfriend.

Megan Abbott is an acclaimed seasoned noir writer, who serves up Oxford Girl in the collection, also among the Wayward Youth stories. Set within real-world Lyon College and played against the lyrics of a 19th-century English ballad, this story reveals the ugly realities lurking just below the surface shine of youth-in-college life, of the all-American bonhomie of college fraternity and sorority life once the pink glitter and the boozing bravado are ripped away. Still, I was unprepared. I’m guessing you, too, will gasp.

Mississippi-born that I am, there is no way I’d miss God’s Gonna Trouble the Water, Dominiqua Dickey’s brimming, emotionally-packed, entry into the complicated, always-dangerous relations between White people and Black people in small-town Mississippi. Elnora. Cissy. Ed. Graham Lee. Sal. Rayford Drew. She deftly populates the story with a cast of characters, all the while never falling into cardboard or stereotypical characterizations. You will certainly recognize these characters, but I bet you won’t be able to predict their ways of being; their decisions. Twisting and turning plotline in its creation of a Mississippi world in a petri dish, author Dickey keeps us guessing up to that last moment when you see why her contribution is classified as Bloodlines.

John M. Floyd’s, Pit Stop, is a story within a story, with State Highway 25 as much a character as Anna Langley McDowell, Keller, Woody Prestridge, Jack, the nun Sister Mary Patrick/Hippie Girl Mary, and Aunt Penny. Floyd’s storytelling is sharply visual, and we’re on that highway and then off on that road with Anna. Somehow, we’re as much a passenger seated behind the locked doors of the car as Anna’s daughter and son or as Anna and Sister Mary. The story is classified in Skipping Town. This is noirish storytelling, so you’re debating with yourself and you’re screaming at Anna and you don’t want a turn off that highway.

MISSISSIPPI NOIR is edited by Tom Franklin and published by Akashic Books (2016).

Final Take-Away

In MISSISSIPPI NOIR, each writer names the story’s setting, and these Mississippi place names anchor me. I need that anchoring because each of the stories takes me to a place that is fantastical, that is beyond ordinary ways of being and thinking, beyond what is considered reasonable or expected in this thing called life. I was so taken by the place names that I looked them up – they are real! These are actual, real geographical places in Mississippi, in this world. I’m glad I did the research. I needed to know something I could depend on. Noir is just outside that kind of knowing.


Mississippi Noir group photo supplied byLuvon Roberson

Front row: Mississippi Noir editor, Tom Franklin and Square Books General Manager, Lyn Roberts. Second row, left to right: Megan Abbott, Chris Offutt, Ace Atkins, William Boyle, John M. Floyd, Lee Durkee, and Michael Farris Smith. Third row, left to right: Dominiqua Dickey, Robert Busby, Michael Kardos, Andrew Paul, and Jack Pendarvis. Photo by Ivo Kamps. From: