The reign of error

Jason Starr's pulp-fiction antiheroes always do the wrong thing.

NOIR TOWN Starr thinks of New York Cityas his novels’ recurring character.

NOIR TOWN Starr thinks of New York Cityas his novels’ recurring character.

Jim Thompson, James M. Cain, David Goodis. Critics toss those classic noir writers’ names around indiscriminately and often misleadingly when reviewing modern thrillers. But in the case of novelist Jason Starr, the comparisons are accurate and well deserved. At a time when readers seem to want uncomplicated heroes and black-and-white plots, Starr’s uncompromising pulp traditionalism is both radical and fresh. The Brooklyn native’s antiheroes—who can make even the most flawed George Pelecanos characters seem like well-adjusted citizens—stumble through an amoral no-man’s-land where bad decisions are compounded by even worse decisions. “A lot of people are really good at writing stories about traditional heroes,” the 39-year-old Starr says over beer and burritos at the Upper East Side restaurant Geronimo. “But a lot of current books are like that. I try to do something different.”

His latest novel, The Follower, tells the harrowing and often grimly funny story of Katie Porter, a young uptown woman whose relationship with investment banker Andrew Barnett—a sort of glorified fratboy—isn’t what she thinks it is. (She’s convinced he’s a great catch, while he’s only hoping to score anal sex.) All along, an older man named Peter Wells has been secretly stalking Katie, and eventually he too becomes romantically involved with her. “In a sense, it’s a love triangle,” Starr says, then catches himself, smiling. “Though I guess I wouldn’t call it love.”

Katie is perhaps the first Starr protagonist who’s consistently sympathetic in a traditional sense. “I like to make you identify with a character, even if it’s the bad guy,” the author says. “The key is to get you to understand—not necessarily like—him or her.” He accomplishes this, in part, by drawing his characters from everyday life. “They’re people I see on the elevator, in the health club, in Starbucks,” Starr explains. “My characters usually aren’t professional criminals; they’re very average and normal. But if they have a choice between door number one and door number two and it’s obvious that they should take door number one, they take door number two.”

Like all of Starr’s books, The Follower is set in New York City—in this case, the Upper East Side. It takes place partly in Starr’s own apartment building, East 95th Street’s Normandie Court, nicknamed “Dormandie Court” on account of its many recent college grads. The locale is a significant departure for a writer who has focused almost exclusively on the grittier parts of the city (although, as he says with a laugh, “most of New York is becoming the Upper East Side”). As with all his work, The Follower paints a vivid, accurate portrait of the city.

“I’m probably one of the few crime novelists who doesn’t write a series character,” Starr says, pointing out a difference between himself and other crime-fiction notables such as Robert Parker, Michael Connelly and Laura Lippman. “I always think that my series character, if it exists, is New York City. That’s my main subject: New York and New Yorkers.” The geographic focus has both advantages and disadvantages. “When you write about New York, it’s instantly familiar to most readers in the world,” Starr says. “But the problem is that a lot of people are writing—and have written—about New York, so it’s more of a challenge to stand out.”

Like his noir forefathers, Starr stands out by pushing his story lines—and his characters—to extremes. This can mean any number of things—from the ill-advised murder of a prostitute (1998’s Cold Caller) to chasing a bottle of Scotch with a bottle of Kahlúa (2002’s Hard Feelings) and a character fantasizing about having sex with his mom (The Follower). “To me, dysfunctional people are a lot more interesting than functional people,” Starr says. “Sure, I could write a story about perfectly happy characters, but I don’t think it would be as exciting. And besides,” he says with a grin, “people like reading about stuff that’s fucked-up.”

The Follower (St. Martins, $23.95) is out now. Starr reads at KGB Bar Thu 16 and Wed 22.