The perennial Powell's bestseller Portland Noir is only one of the titles in Akashic Books' Noir Series, anthologies that invite authors to contribute original, hard-boiled stories set in cities from Copenhagen to Miami, Pittsburgh to Mexico City.
The New York-based publisher is following up the success of that line with a "sister series" about drug use, beginning with The Speed Chronicles (just released alongside a reissue of 2005's The Cocaine Chronicles). But while the Noir Series allows for tremendous variety within the parameters of genre and location, The Speed Chronicles can feel at times like a collection of improv exercises that're all based on the same prop, an impression that's reinforced by the book's editing.
The book's first section, "Madness," is stuffed with the grimmest pieces in the collection. Individually, the stories are strong: Sherman Alexie just might be incapable of writing a bad sentence, and his "War Cry" is a heartbreaker about two cousins on an Indian reservation, churning with love and hate and pain. In another standout, "Bad," Jerry Stahl tracks the jumpy rush of a speed freak's inner monologue, pausing now and then on aphorisms that feel true: "Oblivion has no narrative. Just because there's no plot does not mean the story can't get worse." They're great stories, but in tandem with the other stories in the section, the book is suffocatingly frontloaded with depressing people doing depressing things—just what you expect when you hear the word "meth."
Which is a shame, because The Speed Chronicles actually represents a surprising range of experiences. The promise of the collection is that it will neither vilify nor romanticize its subject matter, a promise embodied by Jess Walter's oddly cheerful story of a tweaker's ill-fated attempt to pawn a television. Humorist Beth Lisick's story stands out for never directly referencing speed at all, although it's easy enough to figure out what's fueling her breathless, party-planning housewife. William T. Vollmann sketches a dreamy portrait of a drag queen who self-medicates, while the ever-deadpan Tao Lin plays to type with another story about g-chatting hipsters with no inner lives (for once it totally works, as his characters are plausibly deadened by a steady intake of booze, Adderall, and crystal meth). These stories make good on the assurance provided by editor Joseph Mattson in his introduction: Speed "crosses all ethnicities, genders, and geographies... making it not only the most essentially American narcotic, but the most deceivingly sundry literary matter."