There is a truly stunning scene in Buffalo-raised Stephan Talty’s first work of fiction “Black Irish.” It occurs two-thirds of the way through the book and takes place on the Peace Bridge.
In the film of the book that will almost inevitably take place inside readers’ inner screening rooms as they read it, it is wildly cinematic – an encounter with a monstrous serial killer full of howling, deafening winds and a female cop climbing uphill and fighting the elements to find out the all-important identity of the newest victim, who is dangling from a rope from the bridge and being tossed around brutally.
It is, I think, as luxuriantly cinematic as those scenes on a frozen Delaware Park Lake in Lauren Belfer’s “City of Light.”
It is sadly unlikely that we’ll ever actually see either one on a movie screen. Actually filming a movie in winter is neither cheap nor easy, whether you’re in a Buffalo location or not (sun, for pity’s sake, is why the movies headed west to the Pacific in the first place).
That doesn’t stop both scenes from living a long life in the inner Bijoux of readers.
“Black Irish” is the latest often remarkable development in the gloriously strange and wonderful and ironic Buffalo literary renaissance that has taken place in the last 20 years. In this case, it’s big literary news about Buffalo – the beginning of a Buffalo-centric crime novel series (there will be at least one more) featuring a Harvard-educated female Buffalo homicide detective who has come back to her hometown.
It’s part of something bigger. What has happened is that a large number of the city’s sons and daughters who have long since moved elsewhere – often to flourishing careers – have insisted on setting books in Buffalo. (Unlike Dan Simmons’ “Hard Freeze” detective novels from a writer who spent two years here but wasn’t raised here.)
The terrible irony is that in Buffalo’s heyday – when it was actually a city of wealth and promise – few and far between were those books boisterous about being set here.
Joyce Carol Oates changed that. She was an authentically major American writer who commonly remembered the Western New York of her childhood in her books.
And then, it seems, the deluge – which ironically coincided with the steepest decline in the city’s future.
A large generation-plus, it seems, of Buffalo sons and daughters has been drawn to a city in tragic decline in a way that earlier generations weren’t in books when the city was on the rise.
Others clearly don’t get it. They can’t see the gallantry, gratitude and love of a generation bringing their imaginations back home to the city they were born and raised in. No city with such loyal children could ever be truly dying, it seems to me.
Even so, when Publishers Weekly reviewed Greg Ames’ “Buffalo Lockjaw,” the word “dreary” was almost the first word used to describe the setting of Ames’ book, which is the best book you’re ever likely to read about boho and student life on Elmwood Avenue.
Here from a South Buffalo native, Bishop Timon graduate and successful nonfiction writer Stephan Talty (“Empire of Blue Water,” “Escape from the Land of Snows,” “The Illustrious Dead,” “Mulatto America”) is a compulsively readable crime thriller about the OTHER side of South Buffalo from the one lovingly portrayed by Tim Russert in “Big Russ and Me.”
Talty’s South Buffalo is even more of a fantasy than Russert’s seedbed of American virtue.
Talty’s South Buffalo is insular, paranoid, parochial, dying and dangerous.
“The neighborhood seemed to ooze bad vibes,” writes Talty. “Where were the kids playing on the sidewalks? Where were the men shoveling snow or shouting to each other as they took down the Christmas lights from their front porches? There was a string of blue and white colored lights blinking in a picture window two doors down, but they didn’t alleviate the gloom of the street. Two of the bulbs had burned out and they were the wrong color anyway.”
Talty’s imaginary South Buffalo is an Irish neighborhood so insular the inhabitants call it “The County” as if it were the 27th county of Ireland. Talty’s tale of his cop heroine Absalom “Abbie” Kearney, a raven-haired cop’s daughter, begins with her investigating the death of Jimmy Ryan, found dead in a basement of a church in “the county.” Ryan was a meter reader for National Grid. That’s all we know at first. Much more is to come.
“They protected their own here, and when one was culled from the pack, the killer was hunted down, dealt with and then disappeared. The County was an organism that didn’t push much into the outside world. It consumed everything it produced, good and bad. Its official motto was 'A Good Neighborhood to Grow Up In’ but it should have been ‘Nothing Escapes Us.’ ”
Before it’s over, we’re told about a secret IRA conduit group called the Clan Na Gael and how it’s related to several deaths, a few of them gruesome with human corpses rendered as if they were animal carcasses.
Though the focus on the female cop heroine might seem to put the lead character in the mystery novel neighborhood of such heroines as V.I. Warshawski and Temperance Brennan, we’re more in the school of Thomas Harris here with perhaps the side influence of “Dexter” creator Jeff Lindsay. In other words, this is a bit too well-written to be grind-it-out pulp and a bit too gory to be an ordinary neoclassic cop procedural.
For all of its locally irresistible farrago of Buffalo scenes and references, this is a fantasy Buffalo almost as removed from reality as Sergio Leone’s Italian Westerns are removed from the real American West. This is a Buffalo where large hotels were once located on the corner of Main and Hertel and where Richmond Avenue has somehow migrated to Buffalo’s East Side.
Nevertheless, Talty makes some very droll Buffalo jokes here too that only Western New Yorkers will get. When Abbie finds one “county” amateur butcher who dresses and sells roadkill out of his garage, only Buffalonians will get the joke that his name is “Wardinski.”
It’s a rather smashing and altogether addictive read though perhaps a wee bit overdone and helter skelter in its final 40 pages (a bit too much quasi-cinematic incident and high-velocity plot resolution, not quite enough common sense).
It’s a book from a writer who wants us to remember that Detroit is not the only urban royalty in the Rust Belt, that “at the turn of the twentieth century Buffalo had more millionaires per capita than any other city in the entire world. It had mansions, it produced luxury cars like the Pierce Arrow, it had power and momentum. It was going to be the next New York City.”
What it unquestionably has now are literary sons and daughters who refuse to let that Buffalo be forgotten – or the city that is its modern heir either. That’s a different sort of community wealth, to be sure, but a kind of wealth it definitely is.
By Stephan Talty
320 pages, $26
Jeff Simon is the News’ Arts and Books Editor.