WRITERS ISSUE: Peter Plate's Elegy Written on a Crowded Street stares into the Market Street abyss
Fantastical plot aside, it is the weight of the dead that is the true subject of Elegy. The book opens with a dreamy scene, shrouded in fog, in which Jones watches the dead body of one of her former clients as it bobs up and down in the surf, unable to either reach the shore or go under for good. Some policemen have waded into the water to grapple with the dead man and bring him in, but the body proves too difficult to apprehend and the cops are pulled down with the it into the crashing waves. Throughout Elegy, Plate’s characters similarly bob along, paralyzed and unable to take decisive action, only pulling each other down, and as the novel ends, May Jones is more or less back where she started. Sadly, like many of Plate’s recent books, the novel fails to fully satisfy because there is no resolution to the plot. Plate’s characters do not seem changed by their ordeal; they only become more numb. Yet perhaps that is the point. Plate seems to be saying that as long as the city fails to grapple with its own dead, nothing can change, and the city is condemned to go around and around in a sort-of netherworld, reliving its past traumas in new conflicts. “It’s a moment in hell that should be taking place beneath the ground,” Plate writes of a brutal police assault on a drunken derelict in Elegy, and it sums up the whole book. The dead won’t stay buried.
While an elegy is a funeral song, a lamentation for the dead, it also suggests a last word. With Elegy has Plate said all he has to say about San Francisco? One hopes not. Perhaps no writer working today has left such a record of what it feels like to live in the American city in the era of gentrification. Yet, in life as in Plate’s fiction, knowing the truth can take its toll, as Doojie finds out when he is hunted by the police for the truth he alone knows. By the end of Elegy, May Jones has spent so much time wallowing in the murky depths where her clients dwell, that her identification with them is complete and her fate has become inseparable from theirs.
The exhausted tone of Elegy suggests that like Jones, Plate, the lifelong activist and engaged writer, has perhaps stared into the abyss too long. Nonetheless, his nine novels are a significant achievement, the life’s work of a doggedly engaged writer. In each book, I have found scenes that remain unforgettable in my own mind and that have permanently altered my own perceptions of San Francisco and its streets. While Plate’s novels are each flawed in their own way, I love them with the Algren-like compassion he clearly has for his memorable characters, like the homeless cop who lives in his squad car in Gutter, and the ex-con who robs a pot club while dressed like Santa Claus in Soon the Rest Will Fall. Taken as a whole, Plate’s novels offer a compelling and defiant portrait of the psychic toll the disappearance of loved people, places, and opportunity from the city has taken on those left behind.