Cape Cod Noir - By David L Ulin

I first began to think of Cape Cod in noir-ish terms during the fall of 1979. I say that, of course, entirely in hindsight, since noir was not then part of my lexicon. I was eighteen, just out of high school, on a year off that would later take me to South Texas and San Francisco. My best friend and I were making this journey together, and before we left, I spent a week at his parents’ cottage in Wellfleet, where he was living alone, working as a cranberry picker, stockpiling money for the trip. Every day, he would go to work, and I would pretend to write a novel, staring out the windows at the gray October sky. At night, we would go to bars. The house was on a marshy point of land known as Lieutenant’s Island, which was only an island at high tide. Some nights, we’d come back to find the road flooded, as if it had never been at all. I was not new to the Cape—I’d spent summers there, or parts of summers, since 1971—but this was a more conditional experience, more elemental and more charged. The same was true of the bars we frequented: dark places, their air thick with cigarette smoke and a kind of survivor’s tenacity. Cape Cod in the off-season was a hunkered-down place, if not in hibernation exactly then in a strange, suspended state. In those days, before the Internet, when even cable TV was still scarce, there was nothing to do but drink.

Here, we see the inverse of the Cape Cod stereotype, with its sailboats and its presidents. Here, we see the flip side of the Kennedys, of all those preppies in docksiders eating steamers, of the whale watchers and bicycles and kites. Here, we see the Cape beneath the surface, the Cape after the summer people have gone home. It doesn’t make the other Cape any less real, but it does suggest a symbiosis, in which our sense of the place can’t help but become more complicated, less about vacation living than something more nuanced and profound.

This, it might be said, is also the case with noir, which is the dime-store genre that exposes our hearts of darkness, the literary equivalent of the blues. In noir, bad things happen to good people—or more accurately, possibilities narrow, until every option is compromised and no one ever wins. How one deals with that might seem a narrative question, but noir is less about the particulars of story than it is about point-ofview. As for the way such a point-of-view asserts itself, I think of it as stoic, stripped clean of illusion, like the faces I used to see in those off-season bars. In noir, we know that help is not coming, that the universe devolves to entropy, that everything goes from bad to worse. And yet, if this leaves us resigned or even hopeless, we have no choice but to deal with it as best we can. “I needed a drink, I needed a lot of life insurance, I needed a vacation, I needed a home in the country. What I had was a coat, a hat and a gun,” Philip Marlowe observes in Raymond Chandler’s Farewell, My Lovely, a novel that helped define the noir aesthetic, and seventy-one years later, that air of desolate clarity, of a character staring into the abyss as the abyss stares back, is still the form’s defining sensibility, a cry in the darkness of a world that is, at best, apathetic, and at worst, in violent disarray.

Cape Cod Noir is an attempt to pay tribute to that perspective even as it moves beyond the traditional landscape of noir. The idea is to stretch a little, to gather writing rich in local color, while remaining true to the ethos of the genre. Here, you’ll find a range of work, from the contemporary noir of Paul Tremblay and Dave Zeltserman to the more fanciful creations of Adam Mansbach and Jedediah Berry, whose stories go in unexpected directions, asking us to question our assumptions about the form. Dana Cameron’s “Ardent” takes us back to the eighteenth century, while Elyssa East and William Hastings portray a Cape Cod the tourist brochures don’t recognize, marked by hard luck, history, and loss. In some stories, noir operates mostly in the background, like a whisper in the air. But this, too, is as it should be, for if there is a principle at work, it is that noir has become, in