The Naked City

In South Central Noir, Gary Phillips showcases 14 takes on Los Angeles.

south central noir, gary phillips
Akashic Books

It’s telling just how often the 1992 Los Angeles insurrection comes up in South Central Noir. That makes sense, since this anthology—part of the Akashic Noir Series—is edited by Gary Phillips, whose first novel, Violent Spring, published in January 1994, takes place in the wake of that upheaval. Phillips is a key figure in contemporary Southern California crime fiction, but equally important, he is a lifelong Angeleno, a former union and political organizer, whose fiction has long featured an element of social commentary. He understands that unlike Watts, which has been addressed in countless books and government reports, the eruption that occurred after four white LAPD officers were acquitted in the beating of motorist Rodney King has never quite received the same level of reckoning. For this reason, perhaps, it lingers in the city’s psyche, infusing works that include Anna Deavere Smith’s astonishing performance piece Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992 and novels such as Ryan Gattis’s All Involved and Steph Cha’s Your House Will Pay.

Cha is among the writers who appear in South Central Noir; her story, “All Luck,” opens the book and helps set the tone. Taking place in 1992, as the city burns, it portrays a Korean liquor store owner suspended between responsibility and chance. “He hated this place,” Cha writes. “He hated that it was supposed to make him proud, all his toil and sacrifice so his kids could have good lives.… The work was hard, and after eight years running the store, he had worse than nothing to show for it.” Here, we see the sort of conflict that drives so much noir: an individual with no good choices, caught up in circumstances that cannot be controlled.

South Central Noir is defined by such conundrums; again and again, we encounter people doing what they must to survive. There’s Darryl, manager of a bookstore (inspired by Eso Won Books), who, in Tananarive Due’s chilling “Haint in the Window,” sees a ghost that, it turns out, may well be his own. Or Eric, the protagonist of Gar Anthony Haywood’s deftly constructed “All That Glitters”—a security guard at the Watts Towers who hears the strange saga of a pair of brothers and a missing inheritance. Haywood, like Phillips, has been writing about Los Angeles for a long time; he deserves to be more widely known. He’s brilliant at creating atmosphere, as in this description of the towers, which are, he suggests, “either the biggest eyesore or the greatest piece of man-made art the city of Los Angeles would ever see, depending on your taste for the bizarre.”

My sense is that the latter is more accurate, which reflects the nuance in Haywood’s work. What he’s referencing, after all, is not just the project but also its heritage: in 1957, three years after Simon Rodia completed them, the towers were labeled “an unauthorized public hazard” by the city. Composed of several spires mosaiced with shards of earthenware, glass, and other detritus, they now stand as an emblem of a mix-and-match dreamscape, which might also be said of this anthology. What I mean is that South Central Noir is itself a similar mosaic, with stories set next to one another like the component pieces Rodia juxtaposed.

This dynamic leads to unexpected flashes of connection, as in the collection’s ongoing references to 1992. There’s Cha, of course, and also Due’s story, but Larry Fondation’s “Jayson and the Liquor Store,” Roberto Lovato’s “Sabor a Mi,” and Phillips’s “Death of a Sideman” as well. Often, the references are coded. “A lot of stuff happened,” Fondation writes. “It just all happened before we were born. Or maybe when we were babies—born in 1992, right when something happened. Boiled over; blew up.” As with Haywood and the Watts Towers, it’s history—the warp and woof, the way it never truly evaporates—that is being invoked. “History,” James Baldwin has written, “is not the past. It is the present. We carry our history with us. We are our history.” Such an idea sits at the center of this book. The murder in Lovato’s story, for instance, takes place in “Slauson Park, near the corner of Compton and 54th.” That, we learn, is “the address of the hideout of the Symbionese Liberation Army,” burned to the ground during a 1974 shoot-out with the LAPD. Naomi Hirahara’s “I Am Yojimbo” observes another line of history: that of the concentration camps to which Japanese and Japanese Americans were sent during World War II. Of a character who grew up on Terminal Island, she writes, “the government had emptied the man-made island and sent Charlie barefoot to Bismarck, North Dakota.”

In part, this reminds us that literature is always political. But even more, it suggests the layers that accrue in any city, in any set of neighborhoods. South Central is hardly a monolith; these stories are set all over South Los Angeles. What they share is a deep sense of place, or maybe we should say: of what came before. This is the case with both the stories that unfold in the present day and those (like Emory Holmes II’s “The Golden Coffin” and Penny Mickelbury’s “Mae’s Family Dining”) set in the past. And it also marks what may be my favorite piece of writing in the book, Désirée Zamorano’s “If Found Please Return to Abigail Serna 158 3/4 E MLK Blvd,” in which a grade-school student assigned to keep a journal (“My school counselor said that I have to do this,” she begins) inadvertently records the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in the instant that the quarantine is declared.

This is noir as mirror. This is noir as lens. This is work that enlarges our sense of what noir is and what it does. South Central Noir wears this intention lightly; most of the stories here observe as much as challenge the conventions of the form. But why not? For noir is nothing if not adaptable, in a world where, Due writes, citing Octavia E. Butler’s Parable of the Sower, “the only lasting truth is Change.”•

Akashic Books


Akashic Books

David L Ulin is Alta Journal’s books editor.
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