Cannibals: Stories from the Edge of the Pine Barrens by Jen Conley is a collection of short stories set in central Jersey, with linked characters searching for the meaning in their lives and the humanity in themselves (Available today!).
New Jersey gets a bad rap.
Not that my home state ISN’T full of aggressive, profanity-loving people; wanna-be mobsters; actual mobsters; and orange-skinned, over-gelled dunderheads like on Jersey Shore (though all of the stars of that atrocity were from out of state)—it is. That’s part of what makes it so interesting. I’ve lived in the Midwest, visited the South often, traveled all over the world, but no place I’ve been has more characters than New Jersey. Now to quote The Wolf from Pulp Fiction, “just because you are a character doesn’t mean you have character.”
Jen Conley’s stories have both.
Now, what Jersey gets a bad rap for is being an industrial wasteland. If all you’ve seen is the Newark airport and the Turnpike, along with those lovely gas refineries along the highway, you’d think the state was a concrete slab with occasional tire fires—but it is truly worthy of its moniker, The Garden State. You just need to get away from New York City to see it.
Like the Pine Barrens, home of the Jersey Devil. (Not the Jersey Devils hockey team, they play in Newark.) The Devil hasn’t been sighted a long time, but the Barrens have been home to everything from homeless camps to Al Capone, and Jen Conley’s story collection captures the dark heart of the state. There’s a noir edge to central Jersey, which Bruce Springsteen carved a career from. Stuck between heartless New York and cutthroat Philly, there’s a need to escape the humdrum blue collar landscape.
Here’s a bit from “Finn’s Missing Sister,” which was noted as a Distinguished story in The Best American Mystery Stories 2013:
Bobby and Finn and a few of the cops went way back to high school and sometimes, in dead-end towns like this, cops let people like Finn slide for no reason. Finn was a likable guy, and he’d been a likable guy in high school, a guy with an alcoholic mother and absent father, a guy who was at all the parties in the woods, a guy who always had the pot. New Jersey was a funny place and in these parts—parts that were not of the Passaic County Soprano-land, parts that were not even on Springsteen’s “Thunder Road” radar, parts that were forgotten wasteland, the Pine Barrens, where the mob dumped the bodies and the Boulevards were empty—in these parts, guys like Finn kept the locals stoned and stupid, which gave the cops people to trail and something to do.
Rural noir doesn’t have a lock on hardscrabble life. As soon as you walk out of the suburbs, with its boxes made of ticky tacky, into the domain of thrillermeister Harlan Coben, you find roadside bars made of singlewide trailers, houses on stilts because the river floods every time they open the dams upstream where the rich people live, scrubs of forest snaked through with ATV trails and rusted out cars, crushed beer cans and used condoms and empty packs of rolling papers.
“Cannibals,” the title story, is misleading. Just about the only urban legend you can’t find in New Jersey is a tribe of cannibals in the woods. There are tales of “midgetville,” where the Ringling Brothers’ dwarfs supposedly retired and chase you out with shotguns full of rock salt. Or was that the Albino Village? Because there’s a legend for that, too. But, you do find encampments in the woods like the one young Jade encounters. Conley conjures such suspense with these scenes, and such pathos.
“Metalhead Marty,” for example, is a loser straight out of a David Goodis novel, but into Black Sabbath instead of playing juke-joint piano. We want so badly for Marty to make it, but we know that’s not for him to have.
Equally deft is how she plays out the suspense in “Howling,” about an old man who pesters the police about hearing noises outside his door. She ratchets the wire so tight it feels like a horror tale, and the terrible conclusion is almost a relief.
“Debbie, the Hero” is a favorite of mine of the bunch. There’s not a bad story in here, but this character stuck with me. Because I know a lot of retirees, and the modern Miss Marple is on Facebook all day:
I see that rotten boy who got my fourteen-year-old granddaughter pregnant. I’m just standing here in the 7-Eleven, waiting to pay for my yogurt and coffee, when he walks in with his mother, Melissa, who heads down one aisle, pretending not to see me. I don’t know Melissa well but she never bothered me until after the storm, when I became Facebook friends with her. You know the type—always posting positive inspirational quotes like: God never gives you more than you can handle. Or, I love my son! If you love your son and think he’s the best thing in your world, share! Given the present situation, I find these posts obnoxious. Yes, I unfriended her but she’s a Facebook user who hasn’t discovered the privacy button. Like an addict, I’m drawn to her page, fascinated by her hypocritical posts.
This is another masterful story where Conley turns up the tension until we can hardly bear it. She’s got a talent for that. I wanted so many of these stories to springboard into novels. This is crime fiction at its purest: gritty, but believable, with everyday people in situations we never want to contemplate. A strong new voice and a talent we’ll be seeing a lot more of in the future.
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Thomas Pluck is the author of the World War II action thriller Blade of Dishonor, Steel Heart: 10 Tales of Crime and Suspense, and Hot Rod Heart: A Noir Novelette. He is also the editor of the anthology Protectors: Stories to Benefit PROTECT and hosts Noir at the Bar in Manhattan. His work has appeared in The Utne Reader, PANK Magazine, McSweeney's Internet Tendency, Hardboiled, Needle: A Magazine of Noir, Crimespree, and numerous anthologies, including Dark City Lights, edited by Lawrence Block. You can find him online and on Twitter as @thomaspluck.
Read all of Thomas Pluck's articles for Criminal Element.