When the kleptomaniac boozehound heroine of Monica Drake's short story "Baby, I'm Here"—the midway point of the new anthology Portland Noir—hits the ladies' room at the Marathon Tavern, the midway point of Portland sloppy-drunk dives, she encounters some distinctive graffiti: MEN WHO FATHER CHILDREN LIVE HERE. "It seemed wrong, reversed," she muses, "blaming the men for where they lived instead of for what they did...." But location is central to Akashic Books' city-by-city series, of which Portland Noir (300 pages, $15.95) is the 31st installment. (It was preceded by Delhi Noir and Toronto Noir, but at least it gets the drop on Copenhagen Noir. ) With Stumptown's rising writers assigned to specific locales—Drake to Legacy Good Samaritan Hospital, Zoe Trope to 82nd Avenue, Megan Kruse to the Tik Tok on Powell—the collection reads like a travel guide to the wrong side of the tracks.
Not that there's anything very wrong with this side of the tracks. Drake's protagonist goes on to consider alternative restroom slogans: "MEN WHO LIVE HERE ARE BAD—but the men in the building weren't bad, only lost and lazy." Which goes a long way toward explaining why the book, edited by Kevin Sampsell, never quite delivers on the nasty fun promised by the title. Evil just isn't within most of these authors' range. Portland Noir contains some amateur detectives (including an underemployed comic-book writer), several scheming baristas and two femme fatales (both fatal to other femmes), but its primary specimen is a genus that has infested this city's fiction since Chuck Palahniuk discovered him: the sketchy deadbeat wasteoid. It's a Portland archetype, but it's not really noir. The best crime fiction, from James M. Cain to James Ellroy, is populated by outlaws and hard cases; this volume is packed with burnouts and charity cases. Never before have I felt like an entire book was asking me for a cigarette.
Yet even in this gutter-punk backwash, one writer thrives. He's Justin Hocking, a skateboard-magazine contributor, and the premise for his entry, "Burnside Forever," isn't promising: A homeless skater boy sleeps in a van under the Burnside Bridge, where he spots a pretty crackhead. So it's more of that, yes, but it's also the only story here to grasp that noir requires a hero whose world-weary wisecracks come from getting broken by the world enough to be weary of it. (This is not the same thing as being a loser.) Hocking describes one character as "fucked up bad and there's something not right about him now, and it's not like he'd ever been totally right, but still." Men who live in Hocking's Portland may not be bad, but at least they know what bad looks like.
contributors read at Powell's City of Books, 1005 W Burnside St., 228-4651. Friday, June 5. 7:30 pm. Free.