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A fictional version of the real Bubbles

December 31, 2011

AKASHIC Books, a brilliant Brooklyn-based independent company  is ‘dedicated to publishing urban literary fiction and political nonfiction by authors who are either ignored by the mainstream, or who have no interest in working within the ever-consolidating ranks of the major corporate publishers.’

Through this admirable raison d’etre it has been publishing its Noir series of short stories based in cities, or districts of major cities, and featuring the work of established writers and less established figures.

Its Baltimore Noir, edited by Laura Lippman, is a beautiful little book which is of particular interest to lovers of either The Wire or Homicide: Life on the Streets. It focuses on neighbourhoods lovers of The Wire, in particular, will be familiar with.

Lippman, writer of the popular and long running Tess Monaghan series, and a life long Baltimorean, starts off with  Locust Point, the now gentrified former working class area that Nick Sabotka tries to buy a house in from Jimmy McNulty’s realtor wife Elena in series two of The Wire. Lippman’s story, like much of the book, deals with the Baltimore that was and which has changed or has been left to fester and die, either the physical landscape, or the people of the city. In Lippman’s story death is more overt.

Rafael Alvarez, writer of Canongate’s great companion book to The Wire, a Baltimore native, writer of several episodes of the series and a former staff journalist on the Baltimore Sun, has a great story about Highlandtown, a working class neighbourhood hit by the deindustrialisation of the city. The story itself is one of infidelity and lost love. Nostalgia and memory are the real driving forces of his story, The Invisible Man, as the narrator says at the start

Crime in Baltimore was brutal but old-fashioned in those days, before the riots and all the goddamn dope.

By far the most touching however is by Lippman’s husband, David Simon, creator of The Wire and a former police beat reporter for the Baltimore Sun. His story, Stainless Steel, set in the Sandtown-Winchester neighbourhoods of West Baltimore, is one fans of The Wire will recognise.

In it, the arc of scrap metal forager and ‘low bottom dope fiend’ Tate, is clearly that of Bubbles from the series and the story looks at the tragic day-to-day existence of a man addicted to injecting heroin and cocaine.

Whether Simon (below left)  has written Tate in the story to resemble the wonderful performance of Andre Royo (below, right) in the show, or not, it is a touching, acutely observed story of an underclass warrior abandoned and fending for himself and a teenager abandoned to the streets.

The lovely personal traits and affectations of Bubbles shine through in Tate, and the stories clearly come from Sinon’s experience reporting on the streets. The selling of scrap metal for drugs money is used here for the third time, having made its debut in Simon and Ed Burns’ harrowing mini series The Corner.

Tate’s and Bubble’s story is based on the charismatic police informant Possum, who Simon met a couple of times during his writing career, and who also wrote an obituary for. The beating of Bubbles, below, is mirrored in the story, as is the tragic story of Daymo/ Sherrod.

A prior knowledge of Royo’s series stealing performance only makes an enjoyment of this story better. There can be few performances of recent times, in any art form, as beautifully realised as Royo as Bubbles. He’s my favourite character in The Wire and helps me understand Tate even more. Just look at the lightness of touch in the YouTube clip below.

The humanity of Tate, a man struggling with 20 years on the needle, but who still does his best to help those abandoned to the streets and who he believes will struggle there, is an affecting tale, and one which Simon can tell as many times as he wants, I’ll never complain.

It is a touching but unflinching reflection of the brutal hardships of the streets of inner city Baltimore in the era of drug pandemic.  Like the story of Bubbles, it shirks none of the awkward truths and rejects mawkishness, Tate knows the realities of streets, and he has no time for anything but the realities.

I was actin’ all parental an’ shit, like I was responsible for that boy. Like I wasn’t who the fuck I been for twenty fuckin’ years, you know? Pretending to be something past a low-bottom dope fiend, but you know what? I am a low-bottom dope fiend and I kilt that child. I did. So just lock my ass up an’ be done with this shit. Jus’ lock me the fuck up ’cause I am done pretending. I wadn’t no good for that child. I ain’t good for no one. So jus’ lock me up ’cause I’m responsible for this here.

Baltimore Noir is an excellent book for those of us interested in the city thanks to The Wire  and the introduction to new writers is welcome. Dan Fesperman and Tim Cockey’s stories for the book’s Part III: The Ways Things Never Were are among the best in the collection.

Baltimore Noir is available from Akashic Books here.

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