So how is poet Ginsburg's first novel, Sunset City? I truly wanted to like it, but it didn't get my motor running. My literary ego is flattered that she has the protagonist's ex-boyfriend observe that Houston is "too small a town," to which the protagonist flatly replies, "There's six million people here." I am not so ego-driven as to conclude that the author has read A Small Town for Its Size.
The reviews that I have read on Goodreads make some excellent points: The writing is solid, the pacing is mostly appropriate (sometimes slowing down when it really shouldn't), and the references to Inner Loop Houston locations will make any seasoned Inner Looper smile. It's certainly entertaining enough for a fast reader to get through in a few sittings. At no time did I want to just leave my signed copy on a bench and let somebody else pick it up.
But for a book labeled "literary noir," I didn't find enough literary or noir in it to really dig it. It's not that the action is lacking in noir-ness. It is certainly a murder mystery, even if the detective is not the protagonist. The detective is, in fact, an HPD homicide investigator who drifts in and out of the story. Writing it from the point of view of the murder victim's young, smart, attractive friend, rather than the misanthropic detective, is a pretty cool twist.
I just didn't get the expected James M. Cain/Raymond Chandler flavors from the style. Literary fiction with some noir touches? Sure, that fits.
Ginsburg sneaks some very descriptive writing into this first-person narrative. My favorite passage involves a description of a young, friendly cocaine dealer living in a crappy apartment in a nondescript district in the north suburbs:
Our host had a flat pale face and fauxhawked hair. His grin made him adorable in the way of children in cookie commercials and when it departed it left him bereft, with an assortment of random features that didn't quite add up to a face.
There is nothing really special or remarkable about Charlotte. She drinks too much and makes poor decisions. The world overwhelms her with its callousness and complexity. She is the spectator in life to whom, nonetheless, everything happens.
Charlotte stumbles through her own version of an investigation after troubled high school friend Danielle Reeves is found murdered and mutilated in a motel room. She has no idea what she's doing, or sometimes even that she's doing it. She operates almost entirely on instinct and gut reactions. She discovers that there are levels of fucked-upness to which her own fucked-up life can merely aspire.
While I smiled and nodded at the references to Houston landmarks—Memorial Park, the Galleria, the Heights, River Oaks, Hermann Park, the East End, Ninfa's on Navigation, the West Alabama Ice House, the Astro Motel on the North Freeway—I also found those references frustrating. This would be my second complaint.
If you don't live in Houston, you probably don't know what some of these places look like. For all the wonderful physical descriptions of the characters, Ginsburg does non-Houstonians (and even Harris County suburbanites) a disservice by not really transporting us to the West Alabama Ice House and other such landmarks.
Yes, there are spot-on remarks about the stifling homogeneity one sees the deeper one travels into suburbia. Yes, there's a wonderfully textural description of the shithole House of Pies from when Ginsburg last lived in Houston: before its interior was redone, before City Council made it illegal to smoke in eateries. But there is so much to the character of neighborhoods like the Heights, Montrose, Museum District, Near Northside, and East End that Charlotte doesn't get to convey for readers unfamiliar with those places.
Charlotte apparently lives in Montrose or the Museum District, within cycling distance of The Harp on Richmond, but I don't think I saw the word "Montrose" even once.
I hope that Ginsburg is on good terms with the people at House of Pies, which Charlotte flat-out refers to as a shithole. As I'm sure Ginsburg now knows, Houston Media Source hasn't been on Milam in the southeast corner of Montrose for many years.
My third hang-up is that Charlotte's small world within this gigantic small town is uncharacteristically white. Every speaking character is Euro-American, although there are hints that one or two are part Latin or Asian. Houston is known worldwide as a multi-cultural megalopolis, with more languages spoken here than New York City or Los Angeles. If you're going to use Houston as a setting, or cast it as a character, I recommend embracing the mix of cultures. Don't just sprinkle in references to Mexican kids at the washateria, Mexican housekeepers, Mexican landscapers in River Oaks (who actually are more likely Guatemalan or Honduran anyway).
Finally, this is not a spoiler: As I see it, the most interesting character in Sunset City turns out to be the murderer. I didn't find much to latch onto in the other characters.