(Editor’s note: This review comes from Ben Terrall, a freelance writer based in San Francisco, California, whose work has appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, the San Francisco Bay View, In These Times, CounterPunch, and Noir City. He’s the youngest child of author Robert Terrall [1914-2009], who—under the pseudonym Robert Kyle—penned a series of novels featuring Manhattan private eye Ben Gates, as well as other crime-fiction works.)
Sin Soracco is a unique voice among crime novelists. She doesn’t write about private eyes and her stories are not plot-driven, but she does pull the reader into the off-kilter lives of women and men living outside mainstream society. Having spent time in California jails and prisons, Soracco is intimately acquainted with milieus like the ones her convict and ex-convict characters inhabit. They are far from the mostly lily-white preserves of too much U.S. literary fiction, and far more interesting.
Soracco’s first book, Low Bite (1989), dealt with goings-on among a wild mix of inmates in a California women’s prison. Her second, Edge City (1992), follows the adventures of an ex-con who takes a job in a belly-dancing bar and tries to keep herself out of jail. Both books have been reprinted in recent years by The Green Arcade Press in collaboration with PM Press.
Soracco’s latest novel, Come to Me, was released this last summer as a “joint noir” by The Green Arcade and Ithuriel’s Spear Press. Like her previous two works, Come to Me is filled with people living on the fringes of society who have little in the way of material possessions but plenty of mother wit and keenly honed survival instincts. They are often at the end of their ropes, but mostly still managing to maintain commendably caustic senses of humor.
Soracco’s wildly original prose style, full of the argot of career criminals and veteran opiate enthusiasts, and packed with zippy one-liners, makes her books a treat for readers looking for an alternative to conventional crime writing. It is no surprise that Hubert Selby Jr., that great surveyor of the American underbelly, was a fan. Come to Me offers the added incentive of an insider’s view of Santería, the religion brought to the western hemisphere by African slaves. Much of the action in this novel takes place in a rooming house populated by women who engage in that practice, following the lead of Oleander, who runs the botanica and curio shop located below the rooming house.
Just released from prison, Gina comes into this mix looking for her friend Frankie. She encounters more than she bargained for: “Gina knew a lot about crime, she wasn’t afraid of crime, she had a graduate degree in crime, she understood crime from motivation to modus op; but whatever was going on here—ah, this loopy street corner hoodoo stuff—not so much.”
The ensuing action, involving overlapping stories with multiple characters, moves into dark and sometimes deadly goings-on, largely involving a cursed statue. The players in this narrative are vividly, often hilariously, rendered, and even the sleazier male characters are full of surprises that keep the pages turning.
At a San Francisco book launch for Come to Me, Soracco was introduced by Bay Area poet and novelist Jim Nisbet. Nisbet said he thought Soracco’s writing was at the same level as French author Louis-Ferdinand Céline’s, which Soracco clearly appreciated. Nisbet, himself the author of an impressive body of wildly idiosyncratic crime fiction, described how an employee of City Lights Bookstore steered Soracco toward submitting Low Bite to Barry Gifford’s Black Lizard Press. Gifford, whom Nisbet described as the author of “the best book about Kerouac” (Jack’s Book), has had a long career as a writer of fiction and poetry. In the 1980s he acted as editor and publisher of Black Lizard, where he brought classic crime novelists, Jim Thompson and Charles Willeford among them, back into print. Gifford also published some original novels, including several Nisbet books. The line was notably thin on women writers, which Nisbet had been bugging Gifford about, so Low Bite was a more than welcome addition to the imprint.
At the book launch I overheard Soracco saying that she had no idea what “noir” was when she was first told that Low Bite fell into that genre. She is in good company: many of the directors and writers responsible for film noir classics never heard that term until younger intellectuals used it to describe those movies. But unlike the doomed protagonists of those features, Soracco’s characters tend not to give in to the daunting challenges of their circumstances. Her heroines find reserves of strength that help them to persevere with their wits and humor intact, while continuing to rebel against the status quo. This makes her work, as dark as it at first appears, life affirming without ever being close to cloying.
Special note should be made of Come to Me’s beautiful cover art by Gent Sturgeon. Sturgeon also did the covers for The Green Arcade/PM Press editions of Low Bite and Edge City.
Another perk: all three books conclude with different interviews with Soracco, which are fun and informative—a wonderful alternative to the standard approach of beginning a book with a ponderous, spoiler-packed introduction. ◊