San Diego Noir: What Texans Think of When They Imagine California

by on June 21, 2011 · 4 comments

in Media, Ocean Beach, San Diego, Under the Perfect Sun

A Book Review

In Mike Davis’s seminal discussion of noir in City of Quartz he defines the genre as “a fantastic convergence of American ‘tough-guy’ realism, Weimar expressionism, and existentialized Marxism—all focused on unmasking a ‘bright, guilty place.’” Born in the minds of the “Depression crazed middle classes” of southern California, the “nightmare anti-myth of noir” trafficked in alienation and a distrust of the morality of capitalism.

More specifically, Davis notes how “noir everywhere insinuated contempt for a depraved business culture while it simultaneously searched for a critical mode of writing or filmmaking within it.” Thus in the “through-the-glass-darkly” novels of this new genre, early noir writers created “a regional fiction obsessively concerned with puncturing the bloated image of Southern California as the golden land of opportunity and the fresh start.” In so doing, they transformed “each charming ingredient of the booster’s arcadia into a sinister equivalent.”

Davis then goes on to do a historical survey of Los Angeles noir in the broadest sense, starting with James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice and ending up with Blade Runner, along the way touching on the work of Raymond Chandler, Nathaniel West, black noir writers, noir influenced science fiction, as well as contemporary crime writers. He ends his discussion of the evolution of noir by citing Thomas Pynchon’s vision of “the Disneyfication” of it in his novel Vineland where the characters visit “the Noir Center” and shop in stores like “Bubble Indemnity” and the “Mall Tease Flacon.” Perhaps, Davis fears, postmodern noir is heading toward a vanilla commercialization, full steam ahead.

San Diego Noir, an anthology of local writing put together for the Akashic Books “Noir” series, has a few pieces that fit into the “nightmare anti-myth” tradition of Southern California, but (sadly) most of the pieces fall into the “Disneyfied noir” category. Indeed, in her introduction to the anthology, editor Maryelizabeth Hart notes that “through the stories in this volume, readers can visit many of the popular local sites,” clearly indicating that the volume is intended to be a kind of airport book for tourists rather than a “through-the-glass-darkly” debunking of San Diego’s frequently feeble boosterism.

The pieces that Hart writes “could occur in any city—but are colored with the particular scents and sounds of San Diego” by Ken Kulken, Debra Ginsberg, and Taffy Cannon do indeed read like they could be set anywhere, and are consequently largely generic tales with San Diego props tossed in here and there. And, unfortunately, even some of the other stories that try to be more deeply embedded in the landscapes of the city lack enough convincing thick description to evoke any kind of “thereness.” Throwaway references to the weather, the beach and the zoo confirm rather than defy the tourist stereotypes of San Diego.

Particularly disappointing are the two “historical” pieces that take place back in the golden era of classic noir: “The Home Front,” set in Sherman Heights by Diane Clark and Astrid Bear, and “After Thirty,” set in Pacific Beach by Don Winslow. Here, the historical context of the forties offered these authors a chance to excavate some of the history tourists never see about San Diego but, in both cases, they missed the mark.

Throwaway references to the weather, the beach and the zoo confirm rather than defy the tourist stereotypes of
San Diego

The Homefront,” a lurid tale of murdered working girls, uses the Jesse Shepard House (AKA the Villa Montezuma) as a backdrop, but does little to exploit that history or explore the lives of the factory women. Interestingly, some of the history seems inaccurate as the story has one of the neighbors discussing how “the mister is off working at the tuna cannery,” when the vast majority of cannery workers were women of color (the men were more often working on the tuna boats or in the war). Being truer to this historical fact would have opened doors to some interesting subplots.

The story also cites menacing “pachucos” several times, as the white narrator notes: “A group of Mexican boys, pachucos, were leaning against the wall of the next building. Their wide-lapeled zoot suits were elegantly draped but frayed at the edges. Their dark eyes gave me the once-over. One let out a piercing wolf whistle, another made a remark in rapid-fire Spanish. They all laughed, with a bit of a nasty edge to it. I sped up my stride and grabbed my purse more tightly with suddenly sweaty hands.” Later in the piece she observes that, “The pachucos watched me from their post down the street” and later still, “the pachucos head toward Market in their tight little pack.” Finally, she says to another character: “. . . The whole neighborhood’s pretty creepy! Black-market coupons, those Mexican boys, the Smiths—what’s next, white slavers?”

Ultimately the scary pachucos don’t serve any function in the plot other than as a menacing backdrop and the reference to “white slavers” superficially evokes an earlier racial hysteria anachronistically and out of context. Importantly, what was going on in San Diego during this period was a struggle for Mexican American civil rights. Leftist unionist and activist Luisa Moreno organized the women workers in the canneries, fighting the local power structure and the tuna packing companies that had direct links to the Ku Klux Klan. Moreno was also a central figure in combating the anti-Mexican hysteria that moved into San Diego in 1943 in the wake of the Sleepy Lagoon case and zoot suit riots in Los Angeles when gangs of vigilante servicemen, both sailors and Marines, swept the downtown area attacking Mexican youths, beating them, and stripping them of their clothes. Her courageous stances in both labor organizing and civil rights work earned Moreno the attention of HUAC, and she was eventually deported because of her left allegiance and defiance before the committee. Hence, a story set in Sherman Heights that is not only devoid of this history but evokes stereotypes to the contrary of the historical facts is disappointing indeed.

Don Winslow’s “After Thirty” seems promising at first with its potential examination of the unsettled gender roles and sexual norms of the World War II era, but it quickly falls into tired macho stereotypes. While the machismo that leads the main character to misogyny and misdeed is fueled by cowardice—a sailor’s fear of returning to war—neither the costs of the war nor the victim of his rage are dealt with in any depth. The bars, beaches, burlesque houses, and amusement parks of wartime San Diego are also little more than cardboard cutouts that don’t paint a very vivid picture of the time.

Cameron Pierce Hughes’ story “Moving Black Objects” has some moments of verve like when the main character notes that “San Diego tries to cover up the ugly” and is “what Texans think of when they imagine California.” It also has an implausible plot and some cringe-worthy lines like “I’m just a washed-up fuck star” and “paradise ain’t cheap” as well as the odd observation that: “Pacific Beach is losing to gentrification and crime spurred by alcohol, and Ocean Beach tries way too hard to be funky and pretend it’s still 1975. Hanging on to a true beach-town feel amid the commercialism of the age is no easy task for those who live there, but Mission Beach keeps it real.” Go figure, OB. Clearly this is what tourists think of when they imagine San Diego.

On the upside, Lisa Brackmann’s Ocean Beach story “Don’t Feed the Bums” is a much better take on OB that does justice to the setting and turns the cruel assumptions behind the notorious anti-homeless person sticker on its head. During an argument, the main character’s husband bemoans that OB “is a dump” because it doesn’t “have new businesses” and “[i]mprove” with all its “hippies and drunks and stoners.” She, on the other hand, “liked that Ocean Beach didn’t change.” Take that developers.

These few exceptions aside, what stands out about San Diego Noir are the missed opportunities

Along with Brackmann’s story, the pieces by T.J. Jefferson Parker, Gabriel Barillas, and Luis Alberto Urrea also deserve praise. Parker’s “Vic Primeval” traces the sad tale of a former wrestler and strip joint bouncer who gets a crush on the wrong girl. His friend, a local cop, gives a pocket history of the San Diego mob:

The San Diego mob guys own and frequent a downtown restaurant called Napoli. It’s an unflashy two-story brick affair not far at all from police headquarters. They have controlling interests in a couple of much swankier eateries here, but they do their hanging out at Napoli. . . . [He was the] grandson of one of San Diego’s more vivid mob figures, Leo the Lion Gagnas. Leo and his L.A. partners ran this city’s gambling and loan sharking. Back in 1950, two men out of Youngstown tried to get in on the Gagnas rackets, and they both washed up in Glorietta Bay one morning with bullets in their heads. Leo and company opened Napoli back in ’53. He was tight with Bebe Rebozo, who was a big Nixon fundraiser. Beginning in 1966 Leo did two years for tax evasion and that was it. He never saw the inside of a prison before or after.

This small rap on mob ties to local real estate and Republican figures back during the Nixon era (something Mike Davis outlines in his section of Under the Perfect Sun), is the only place in the anthology where any of the authors comes close to pointing out the underbelly of power and capital in San Diego.

Barillas’s “The Roads” follows a petty weed dealer from Fresno on his escape to San Diego “a repository for the detritus that falls off Interstate 5.” Its main character observes something that virtually none of the other stories’ characters do, that, “Behind its slick and sunny veneer, there’s no escaping that San Diego is a border town,” and that “You get sucked into this city mostly because you have nowhere left to go, but I learned that that’s what the California dream can come to . . . This is not my California dream.” While the story doesn’t do more than mention the border, the reference to the busted “California Dream” is a nod to the best of the noir tradition, and it does an excellent job of putting you on the streets of the city and in the shoes of someone who sees San Diego from the barrio his cousin lives in (although even here the main action is in Del Mar and the Gaslamp).

The Urrea story, “The National City Reparation Society” is the best in the volume and is, curiously, the only piece that deals with the consequences of the Great Recession and the real estate bust. In this tale we follow a main character who has come back to National City where “all the things he remembered and loved” are gone and who senses that “Things seemed to be vanishing as if all of San Diego County were being abducted by aliens.” Nonetheless, he gets caught up in a scam with an old friend who wants to take advantage of the fact that the economic meltdown has the banks repossessing houses “backed up,” making uninhabited homes easy pickings. While their scam ends in Arizona, we get a nice little slice of nostalgia for the old National City along the way—and some well aimed shots at the banks, gentrification, and Arizona justice.

These few exceptions aside, what stands out about San Diego Noir are the missed opportunities. Strangely, there is virtually no noir east of I-5 in the anthology. There is not much diversity and, as noted, very little in the way of the “nightmare anti-myth” San Diego style. The collection takes a look at lots of petty crimes but pays little attention to the big crimes committed against all of us by the corrupt rich and the mercenary political establishment of the city. There is nothing about the border beyond a few references, no political scandals, no Walter Mosley-like investigations about the real racist past and present of San Diego. There is nothing, in short, that would disturb your day at the beach.

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

mr.rick June 21, 2011 at 2:15 pm

Reading this is probably for aficinado’s of Noir or whatever. But, it did take me back to some really foggy OB days. Like when you can’t see for shit and hear the fog horn just doing it’s job. The kind of day when you stroll down to the lot and it’s so gloomy no one is even at the beach. Which is the perfect time if you happen to be a surfer. When it’s a super gray day, you can feel the waves coming before you can see them. Then you can hear the top of the wave rustling as it starts to feather. And when you get back to the lot, you find all your stuff has been jacked by so low-life local or ?


Frank Gormlie June 24, 2011 at 9:18 pm

Jim, awesome review – way more than expected. Author Lisa Brackman is discussing her book at the OB Library, Sat June 25th.


editordude July 6, 2011 at 1:06 pm

Here’s a comparison: check out the Reader’s review of “San Diego Noir” and compare it with our Jim Miller’s review.


Cameron Pierce Hughes July 22, 2011 at 8:25 pm

Guys, the OB thing was a joke. A JOKE. Lighten up, I love OB.


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