07 September 2008

Noir and not noir

Jordan Fisher Smith's Nature Noir is a fine read. But it is not noir. Mr. Smith was a ranger in California, working the American River country. His intriguing memoir is filled with law enforcement stories, something perhaps most folks don't associate with rangering. If you spend any time in State Parks, National Recreation Areas, and the like, you see guys in Broncos and pickups with guns and badges. Public spaces have cops--even outdoor public spaces. So although the writing is good, and the stories of drugs, destruction, and death are interesting, they don't shock or surprise me. They sound like the stories you read about in your local paper. The descriptions of the natural settings are superb however, Smith has a keen naturalist's eye and a poetic pen. You learn a lot about the profession, and get a bit of "police procedural" as well. In the end, the convoluted decades-long story of the proposed Auburn Dam, and the land it may still some day inundate, is the center of it all. I put the book down thinking I'd gained an appreciation for a place I didn't know, and a better understanding of how we--the people--shape the fate of our public lands.

So what qualifies as noir then? I don't think events or subject matter constitute noir, necessarily. Tone, voice, style, attitude, outlook, sub-text--these are the the key elements. I don't recall anyone classifying S.E. Hinton as noir, but having just finished That Was Then, This Is Now, I think I can make a case for it. Ms. Hinton doesn't waste words, creating fully-fleshed out characters in a few paragraphs. These characters inhabit the edge of society, on the borderline between Main Street and Skid Row. They get caught up in conflicts of love and loyalty that result in violence and death. They are forced to make decisions that tear their very worlds apart, and suffer the tragic consequences. Just because these folks are teenagers and the books are marketed as "young adult" fiction does not mean they aren't noir. I love Hinton's terse style and brisk pacing, and her sympathetic portrayals of mixed-up juvenile delinquents, oddballs, and regular joes struggling to get ahead in life. I spend a lot of time around teenagers (I'm a HS teacher), and I can tell you that the last thing I want to read about is adolescent angst and coming-of-age sturm und drang. But the writing is too good to put down.

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