Tuesday, May 19, 2009


Maybe a little over a decade ago there was a detective show that was filmed in Portland, Oregon, Maybe inspired by “Prime Suspect,” it featured a female lead and made good use of the dark and threatening spaces under all the bridges that cross the Willamette River. That was before they were populated by illegal immigrants. In the series it was always raining, of course, and between overcast reflecting skies and bouncing city lights I joked that it was not quite film noir -- more like film gris. At the end the woman detective was shot -- to death I mean -- while standing in the West Hills in full sunshine with Mt. Hood gleaming with snow behind her. She was wearing a white suit which blossomed a red corsage of blood. Very sad and slightly bitter because so many people loved that series while it lasted.

My automated book review from Powell’s announces:
“The “noir” idea is back again in a book called Portland Noir (Akashic Noir) by Kevin Sampsell.”

Publisher Comments
“Explore the dark, rainy underbelly of one of America's most beautiful but enigmatic cities.

“Brand-new stories by: Gigi Little, Justin Hocking, Chris A. Bolton, Jess Walter, Monica Drake, Jamie S. Rich (illustrated by Joelle Jones), Dan DeWeese, Zoe Trope, Luciana Lopez, Karen Karbo, Bill Cameron, Ariel Gore, Floyd Skloot, Megan Kruse, Kimberly Warner-Cohen, and Jonathan Selwood.

“From the downtown streets littered with strip clubs and gutter punks to the north side where gentrification and old school hip-hop collide, Portland, Oregon, is a place that seems straight out of a David Lynch movie. It's a city full of police controversies, hippie artist houses, and overzealous liberals, where even its fiction blurs with its bizarre realities.

“Portland Noir is an encompassing literary journey where your tour guides take you to the Shanghai Tunnels, dog parks, dive bars, sex shops, Powell's Books, Voodoo Doughnuts, suspiciously quiet neighborhoods, the pseudo-glitzy Pearl District, Oaks Amusement Park, and a strip club shaped like a jug. Violent crime, petty mischief, and personal tragedy run through these mysterious tales that careen through this cloudy, wet city.

“Portland Noir is sure to both charm and frighten readers familiar with this northwest hub and intrigue those who have never traveled to this proudly weird city.”

PW Review
"The home of Chuck Palahniuk, Powell's City of Books — and the place with more strip clubs per capita than any other city in America — gets its due in this splendid entry in Akashic's noir series. Portland natives will appreciate shout-outs to lesser-known landmarks, like the weekly showing of The Rocky Horror Picture Show at the Clinton Street Theater in Ariel Gore's 'Water Under the Bridge,' while outsiders may recognize some of the city's more famous draws, like the Shanghai Tunnels in Gigi Little's 'Shanghaied.' . . . In a city full of police controversies, hippie artist punk houses, and overzealous liberals, Portland, Oregon, is a place where even its fiction blurs with its bizarre realities.”

My Cousin:
“That is not the Portland I know!”

This “noir” series is, of course, an attempt to create a “brand” and to package some small dimension timber from aspiring writers who evidently have been accumulating in Portland the way they used to in Missoula. Portland is something like the twentieth town to be immortalized this way, which is supposed to be paranoid and creepy but stylish. I’ll wait until I can buy second-hand copies a few years from now.

In the meantime I can only remember my own encounters with “The Gray Lady,” especially in my animal control years. Those were the Seventies when Patty Hearst was hiding in town, the mayor’s affair with his babysitter was still a secret, and one of the county commissioners was a known chicken hawk. “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” was playing even then, as well as “Deep Throat,” which was in something like it’s third year. But also, since I was born there in 1939, I can remember when that jug-shaped building had three X’s on it -- wasn’t that root beer?

Interesting that the cover photo is one of Portland’s more innocent life-sized bronzes, the one of a man with an umbrella hailing a cab -- not the nude. I can only remember taking a cab in Portland once: when I had an investigation of my stomach from a little camera (spies!) pushed down my throat while I was sedated. The sedation was quite thorough, enough that the doctor said I could NOT drive home and, in fact, couldn’t even take the bus. So they called a cab and the nurse walked me down to make sure I got into it. SHE gave the address to the driver, looking him over closely to see if he were trustworthy. Good thing. I was high as a kite. If he’d suggested that he take me off into the woods that surround Portland and chop me into little pieces, I would have trilled, “Oh, sounds like fun!” Noir.

Just down the street is the Lovejoy Clinic where young women who failed family planning go to have their innards corrected. I took a young relative of mine and sat with her in the waiting room. The nurse came with her clipboard. “Will all those who are having this procedure for the first time come with me now? Those who are returning may continue to wait here.” Maybe twenty per cent of the clients rose. One young woman with a backpack approached the nurse. “I couldn’t get cash. PLEASE can I write a check this time? I'm begging.”

“You know the rules,” said the nurse, turning away. Noir.

On Oaks Bottom I took my ancient mother for a sedate Sunday afternoon walk along a trail through the woods. “What’s posted on that tree?” she asked. I waded through the bracken to look. It was a page out of a porn mag, the rough kind, and there were more of them stapled to other trees. In the middle was a kind of nest in crushed bracken, a ragged old sleeping bag . . .

“Let’s go back now,” I suggested.

“Why? What was it?” I don’t remember what I made up. Noir.

Forest Park, when Portland is being packaged and branded as a conservationist’s wet dream, is portrayed as pristine forest in the middle of the city. In fact, it is full of human traces, not just sleeping bag nests but full-scale well-disguised hootches. It’s a cop’s nightmare. Guns, drugs, violence, floating sociopaths, and one lady ran a herd of pigs there one summer. But I never ran into any voodoo doughnuts.

It would be all too easy to write a noir book about Browning except those sneering self-satisfied liberals who like to give each other chills are mostly seasonal -- the stories would have to happen in summer. And Valier? Ten years ago I would have told you nothing noir happened here. Now I know better. But still, David Lynch grew up in Missoula. It remains the creepiest town I know, much more than Portland. To understand noir you have to be around a university. Otherwise, it’s just crime and heartbreak. Always just under the surface everywhere. Waiting to be packaged and sold.

1 comment:

Whisky Prajer said...

"Noir" exerts such a strange attraction, doesn't it? I know I've occasionally been surprised when I pick up a "neo-noir" book and discover something with genuine grit that actually repulses me. This gets me wondering if "Noir" doesn't require a certain gloss for it to finally qualify as such.