Why New Yorkers Smoke edited by Luis Ortiz

October 18, 2011 at 4:28 pm (book review, books, fiction, New York, reading, short stories)

This new collection of original short stories answers the question: “What is there to fear in New York City?”

If the writers who contributed to Why New Yorkers Smoke are to be believed there’s only one thing New Yorkers are, were, or ever will be afraid of: 9/11. Seven of the eleven stories included in this collection make mention of 9/11, with six of them using it as a major plot point.

As a life-long New Yorker – one of the few actually born and raised in Manhattan- I can tell you New Yorkers have way more to be afraid of than planes crashing into skyscrapers. Like mutant rats taking over the subway system and charging riders twice the current MTA going rate for a ride. Or a fleet of rogue taxi cabs going all “Christine” and hunting down pedestrians like a pack of hungry dogs. Or that chain pharmacies will come to constitute more than half of the City’s retail outlets.

Yes, 9/11 was a horror Stephen King couldn’t have even cooked up, but in answering the question “what is there to fear in New York City”, I wish the writers and editor of Why New Yorkers Smoke hadn’t gone for the most obvious and, let’s be honest, the most tired answer.

The strongest stories in the collection are those that don’t deal with 9/11 at all. The title story by Lawrence Greenberg is a slow burning and atmospheric piece of sci-fi that totally creeped me out. Don Webb’s “Sparrow” examines the sparkly lure of the city that never sleeps, and how quickly the shine can dull and even destroy. Scott Edelman’s “A Stranger Lying Alone” was the only 9/11 related story with any real emotional weight, told form the point of view of a man who loves the City so much he would rather die in the wreckage and become a part of history than continue to live in a world where this sort of tragedy can happen.

The rest of the collection is uneven. The opening story, Barry N. Malzberg’s “Why We Talk to Ourselves” is too esoteric to truly hook the reader. Paul Di Filippo’s “Candles in a Chianti Bottle…” is overwritten and ends without any satisfying resolution. And Carol Emschwiller’s “Bountiful City” though well written, is anti-climactic.

I wanted Why New Yorkers Smoke to upset my reality. I wanted it to take all the tiny fears city-dwellers walk around with all day long and blow them out of proportion. I wanted to see the mundane made extraordinary. And though a handful of the contributors managed to pull it off, most just offered me the same 9/11 re-hash I’ve been listening to for ten years.

Why New Yorkers Smoke boils the entire city experience down to a single, tragic event. But New York is not a one-note town. 9/11 does not define the City, its residents, or their personal fears, and I wish that was reflected in this collection.

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