Five San Francisco Novels

I’m writing this article after reading the first three novels from Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City series.  Clearly, Maupin loves San Francisco.  He leads readers through the City’s varied neighborhoods like a romantic obsessive showing off memories and souvenirs related to his hyper-adored paramour.  New arrival Mary Ann Singleton moves into 28 Barbary Lane, a San Francisco microcosm really, with trans woman Anna Madrigal, Michael “Mouse” Tolliver always seeking Mister Right, serially heterosexual Brian Hawkins, 1960s holdout Mona Ramsey, and even Norman Neal Williams who represents the City’s most vile possibilities.  Maupin also adds the Halycons from tony Hillsborough, who drift among the nobles populating Nob Hill while pursuing and succeeding at careers that define yuppies.  Neighborhoods, personalities, even history itself are fair game to Maupin.  We meet along the way figures from Mimi Fariña to Jim Jones.  Maupin loves it all, but he’s not the only one.

Dashiell Hammett, for example, details a wonderfully noir San Francisco throughout The Maltese Falcon (1929), even toward the end pinpointing John’s Grill where Sam Spade dines on lamb chops, potatoes, and tomato, today called the “Sam Spade’s Lamb Chops,” a bargain at $39.95.  And, of course, we have the Beats immortalized by Jack Kerouac, William Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and William S. Burroughs, permeating North Beach, now memorialized at City Lights Bookstore, Vesuvius Café, and the Beat Museum, all at the intersection of Columbus and Broadway within a football-field’s length of one another.  Much earlier, Frank Norris’s novel, McTeague (1899), now a hallmark of American naturalism and realism, features McTeague, a dentist with a Polk Street office address, an earthy figure eventually destroyed by avarice.  Norris’s work inspired Erich von Stroheim’s silent opus, Greed (1924). I’ll end this introductory and partial literary romp with native son Jack London’s San Francisco Stories, a 2010 anthology including the entire Tales of the Fish Patrol (1905) and London’s eyewitness account of the 1906 earthquake and fire.

Armistead Maupin loves San Francisco.  Hammett, the Beats, Norris, and London loved San Francisco.  I adore San Francisco, and so do the five authors I will discuss now, each writing about very different aspects of where we left our hearts.

The City Not Long After by Pat Murphy

Published in 1988, The City Not Long After takes place twenty years after a plague greatly reduces the world’s population.  San Francisco now stands as an artists colony, where survivors spend their days working various crafts.  The Machine, called so because he believes he is a machine, builds robots.  Mrs. Migsdale writes newspaper articles that she places into bottles and releases into the Pacific Ocean.  Lily fills store windows with her skull collections.  Finally, Danny-Boy hopes to paint the Golden Gate Bridge blue.  But all is not peace, love, and understanding.  General “Four Star” Miles plans to invade the City from the Central Valley where he’s established his stronghold, to bring dissidents under his control and to gain control over that bridge.  Jax, the main character, arrives to warn the San Franciscans about the General.  What will become of the Baghdad by the Bay?  Read and find out for yourselves.  You’ll also encounter not only a few ghosts from San Francisco’s past along the way, but parallels from 2021 given how things have developed since Murphy first wrote her novel.

The Golden Gate by Vikram Seth

With The Golden Gate, Seth emulates Alexander Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin, employing complicated Pushkin sonnets, also called Onegin stanzas, to relate the stories of four City yuppies, each financially successful, so their struggles stem mostly from romantic or philosophical bases rather than physical survival needs.  The characters encapsulate types popular during the “always on the move” era during which I grew up – a computer engineer, a Stanford-educated trial lawyer, and, because it’s San Francisco, a sculptor who’s the drummer for a band called Liquid Sheep.  John Brown, our lonely computer engineer, advertises in The Bay Guardian, seeking a relationship.  This surfaces our trial lawyer, Liz Dorati, and the pair hit it off.  We then move toward explorations involving them, their friends – both straight and gay, from different professions – very much a period piece surrounding 1980s tropes.  Published in 1986, Seth’s verse novel contains 590 stanzas, quite a standout compared to Bret Easton Ellis, Jay McInerney, and other writers from that time who tackle similar themes.

Virgin Soul by Judy Juanita

Juanita’s central character, Geniece, was raised by African American relatives pretty much living a white lifestyle.  In 1964, however, Geniece, now a student at Oakland City College, discovers that the woman using the locker next to hers is Huey Newton’s girlfriend.  From there, Geniece joins the movement, and we encounter famous figures – Bobby Seale, Eldridge Cleaver, and Stokely Carmichael – while Geniece learns what it means to be Black during the 1960s, shedding her previously bourgeois lifestyle.  Readers will experience poverty and upheaval here.  No hippies abound, and instead Juanita offers a semi-autobiographical novel about coming of age surrounded with civil rights activities and questions about Black identity.

Valencia by Michelle Tea

Writing for Longreads, Alana Mohamed defines Michelle Tea as having “made a career of memoir, and in doing so she has chronicled a generation of queer and punk subcultures.”  Tea sets her second novel, Valencia (2000), named for a main street running through San Francisco’s Mission District, where Michelle, our narrator and obvious stand-in for the real Tea, interacts with fellow lesbians, artists, and poets.  Definitely, the tone mirrors that of the earlier Beats, replete with frenetic pacing, drug references, and underground characters altering their life definitions from one moment to the next.  Tea and producer/director Hilary Goldberg engaged twenty filmmakers to shoot five-to-seven-minute versions of each chapter from the novel to create a film of the same name (2013), and viewers are treated to quite a mélange, including Claymation, with various styles accurately representing the novel’s neck-jerking twists and turns.

Fogtown by Peter Plate

Plate’s San Francisco out-noirs Dashiell Hammett’s and out-naturalisms Norris’s mightily, its streets teeming with marginalized figures: owners of flop-house hotels, street hustlers, drug dealers, and even a widow who converses directly with God.  All this bleakness surrounds petty criminal and perennial loser Stiv Wilkins, who hallucinates about a nineteenth-century Mexican bandit haunting the halls of the already-mentioned hotel in which Stiv lives, and a plot centered on a crashed Brinks truck and several millions then scattered into grimy or disenfranchised hands throughout the landscape.  Plate himself spent seven years living in abandoned buildings and at one point was named a Literary Laureate of San Francisco.  Talk about your highs (however you define that term); talk about your lows.