The art of the verbal quip is on display in Salsa Nocturna, a debut collection of linked stories by Daniel José Older. Set in modern New York, most of the stories deal with the adventures of half-resurrected soulcatcher/ Agent of the New York Council of the Dead Carlos Delacruz as he deals with the various cases the bureaucratic organization throws his way. These include the absurd (a ghostly wooly mammoth) and the terrifying (a horde of soul-eating dolls on Staten Island). Some of the stories follow interlopers in Agent Delacruz’s life, such as a supernatural old woman who collects the city’s psychic stories, or a taxicab driver hired by Delacruz’s crew. The action scenes are full of spiritual mayhem and unfold like a movie, with quick cut scenes and rapidfire prose. These aspects alone are worth giving the collection a try. While not a novel, each story builds on another in a sustained narrative arc.
But the real star is the voice the stories are told in. With one exception, all of the tales are deep first person narratives, full of messy and funny observations about the zeitgeist. Mostly centered around the black, Puerto Rican and Dominican enclaves of the city, the narratives are soaked in vernacular and inside jokes. Some of the best scenes in this short collection occur when the characters—particularly Delacruz’s ghostly sidekicks Riley and Gordo—shoot the shit with their crude gallows humor. New York City itself—from its various tribes to the hipster invasion—is very much a character. At times, the Salsa Nocturna reminded me of the witty genre-savvy of Joss Whedon, the nouveau noir of Walter Mosely, and the character-driven fiction of Junot Diaz.