WRITERS ISSUE: Peter Plate's Elegy Written on a Crowded Street stares into the Market Street abyss
Since Plate finished his Mission Quartet at the close of the dot-com era, he has turned his attention to San Francisco’s Main Street, Market Street. Recently, in its inaugural issue, the incipient local newspaper San Francisco Public Press reported that one lone real estate speculator owns 62% of the vacant real estate between 5th and 6th on Market Street and that he is willfully leaving those properties vacant until he can make the money he thinks he deserves off of the property. Those uselessly abandoned and boarded up buildings at the very heart of the city are the recurring backdrop for much of Elegy Written On a Crowded Street, perhaps Plate’s darkest and most emotional work to date.
Elegy is not so much a traditional crime fiction thriller, but a lyrical roman noir in which police and thieves battle not each other but the stifling conditions of the city. Plate’s latest evokes Don Carpenter’s 1966 classic Hard Rain Falling (reissued this year by New York Review of Books), an unrelenting work that also took place largely on Market Street. Carpenter’s novel brings to life the old dive 24-hour pool halls and dirty hotel rooms of a 1950s San Francisco where the promise of the Gold Rush American West has faded. The novels’ restless young pool hustlers and small time thieves can only shuttle aimlessly back and forth in the new remote control city, like the 8 Ball, waiting to fall. Elegy’s characters are their descendents, still on Market Street and still waiting.
Down this mean street walks May Jones a tough, hard-drinking bail bondswoman, who is nearing forty with no prospects. Like everyone around her, Jones dreams of escape from the city. Even Jones’ clients are leaving for Portland. “It’s got trees. Good people. Cheap housing,” an erstwhile, young crusty-punk bank robber earnestly tells Jones as she prepares to skip bail. But Jones is condemned to remain, while all around her are the undead ghosts of those already disappeared and the soon to be departed. The cleaned up San Francisco is haunted. The living are exhausted. Jones says to herself, “I have pipelines to the lands of the dead.'
Jones echoes the food stamp caseworker, Charlene Hassler from Plate’s welfare reform novel, Snitch Factory (Incommunicado, 1996). Like Hassler, Jones is being worn down between the insatiable needs of her clients and the treacherous intrigues that surround her job. Jones’ client is Mary Anderson, a pregnant twenty-year-old African-American who has killed her boyfriend, the SFPD’s star snitch on Fillmore Street. By keeping her client out of jail, Jones finds herself on the cops’ shitlist and in fear for her life. As in other Plate novels, a police hunt for Jones ensues. As in other recent Plate novels, after the initial hook, the plot soon becomes murky and this hunt becomes elliptical and hard to follow, perhaps even a bit ridiculous. A plot sideline in which Jones has a brief fling with a dyke she meets at the End Up goes nowhere. The ghosts of Lenin and punk rock legend, Will Shatter make surprise cameos that stretch the reader’s credulity. Yet, Plate’s spot on descriptions of Market Street today and the universe of dread his characters inhabit there remains compelling throughout and one never doubts that the unraveling narrative is what life feels like for his characters. Plate writes with a tightly wound urgency throughout and Elegy makes a persuasive case that what is happening at 5th and Market today is happening to the city as a whole.