“San Francisco is the America of America. Give me your tired, your poor.”
— Pretty Much Dead, by Daphne Gottlieb
Countless thinkpieces about San Francisco’s transition into a hyper-capitalist enclave, some better than others, have gone viral in recent years. Now it’s fiction’s chance to weigh in. In new summer releases, the three Bay Area authors Joshua Mohr, Bucky Sinister and Daphne Gottlieb have turned to fiction to explore the subterranean, and often invisible, humanity clinging to life in the ruins of a city that once was… well, something else.
All This Life (Soft Skull Press), the fifth novel from San Francisco-based author Joshua Mohr, opens with a bizarre morning rush-hour tragedy on the Golden Gate Bridge. It’s not the first time, by far, that the landmark has been the site of destruction. Just this year, in over-the-top summer flick San Andreas, the bridge is destroyed by a tsunami brought on by The Big One; the latest Terminator film turns the bridge into a raceway to the end led by Arnold Schwarzenegger’s death-stare android brawn. That said, Mohr’s take on Golden Gate tragedy is much subtler, and acts as an entry point into a story of connection and family ties during a century where social success is measured in YouTube views and Twitter followers.
In the beginning, we are introduced to Paul and Jake, a father-son duo from Marin isolated from each other by depression, loneliness and malaise, as they head in a Prius over the bridge towards the city. “A Google search of his father’s favorite things would not return the boy as a page one result,” thinks 14-year-old Jake. When Jake captures a heart-wrenching video of a tragedy — which then goes viral — the novel is set into motion.
And then there’s Kathleen, a recovering alcoholic, who leaves behind her brain-injured son in Nevada to start a new life in San Francisco. After a few years and a repugnant relapse, she discovers it’s not so easy to start over, especially when she’s moved to place equally unstable — at least for anyone outside of the tech bubble:
She sees the construction cranes downtown, looming across the sky like huge, prehistoric birds. The development is driving out all of the character, and sometimes Kathleen imagines these cranes scooping up artists and plopping down tech employees in their place. She knows it’s only a matter of time until she’s ladled up too, replaced by a twenty-something making six figures for speaking computer code, the only foreign language that matters. What happens, she wonders, to a city — especially one like San Francisco, a place that has always been composed of immigrants and outcasts and transients and artists, a whole surrogate family of people who weren’t wanted in other places — what happens when it becomes as homogenous as a suburb?
Bucky Sinister’s Black Hole (Soft Skull Press) opens with outcasts, transients and deep dives into a neo-futuristic subterranean San Francisco, where the tired and poor cling to a shrinking territory in the heart of the Mission.
Chuck, a forty-something ex-punk rocker with a raging drug habit, sells $1 dwarf whales to tech millionaires in San Francisco. “Sunday mornings are hell in the Mission,” observes Chuck, after another all-night bender on hard drugs. “It fills up with the brunch crowd that, if you don’t live here, I really can’t describe. Brunch is the disco of this decade. People wait in line for pastries at Tartine. Sure, it’s good. I’ve been there on a weekday, but it’s not stand-in-line-like-it’s-Studio-54 good.”
The novel is filled with these types of semi-comedic and sarcastic observations. Lots of deranged rants about the changing city, the CrossFit and yoga and gluten-free demographic, between drug orgies and hellacious day-after comedowns. That is, until Chuck gets a hold of black hole, a street drug that never runs out, makes him feel invincible, and warps chronological time. Between his drug fantasies, Chuck grimly observes San Francisco then and now. Of his old friends, he writes:
Some died and some became homeless, others disappeared into the chaos, filling the state prisons and haunting the basements of their relatives’ houses. They’re junkies on Capp Street and dead-eyed bums in the Civic Center. They’re the zombies on Jones street and the creeping undead on San Pablo Avenue. They’re annoyances and smells and things in the way of rich people walking down the sidewalk. They made the poor neighborhoods interesting so the wealthy moved in and now they’re the scourge of the same streets.
While much of the book seems like a barely disguised chance for Sinister himself to undermine the millennial yuppies who’ve taken control of his town, it does contain some bright, funny moments — and classic down-the-rabbit-hole drug fantasies in the spirit of the best of Hunter S. Thompson.
“Our sanctuary has been sliced apart by a silicon chip,” writes Daphne Gottlieb in her latest collection Pretty Much Dead (Ladybox Books). Over the next 200 pages, Gottlieb builds a bleak but potent cabin of words for the poor, the mentally ill and the homeless of San Francisco. In “The Earth is Full” she writes:
The woman can’t afford to eat at the restaurant where she is a server. A teenage boy writes love poems. The man can’t buy groceries where he bags them. A boy writes letters. The homeless youth shelter loses its lease. A girl takes pills. People try marching and it does not stop the evictions. The city runs an editorial: No one has the right to live here. The tech workers nod and repeat that to each other on social media. A social worker moves to a more affordable, nearby city, and new restaurants and shops spring up nearby. Spare some change?
The commentary is most compelling in the stories told from the perspective of those at the bottom of the chain. Take, for example, Bella, a deaf 65-year-old homeless puppeteer who lives (sometimes) on the stairs to the narrator’s apartment. Bella was raped and abused as a child, and doesn’t want to live in a shelter because it’s boring — and because on the streets, she has “the whole world.”
In full disclosure, I studied writing with Gottlieb at New College of California, just before the school collapsed in 2008. In Gottlieb’s Post-Modern Literature class, I learned how to tear paragraphs apart, in search of subconscious layers that wanted to be revealed through the stripping away and reconstruction of language outside of the familiar. Gottlieb has mastered this approach to content, and it’s a joy to linger in her language experiments.
Ultimately, Pretty Much Dead — like All this Life and Black Hole — successfully pulls the reader into stories of a San Francisco population that, though diminished, continues to coexist with the city’s more monied citizens — in SROs, in shelters, in dive bars, at the Embarcadero, and on a sidewalk near you.