Serendipity is getting rarer and rarer these days now that Amazon and Google are ramming it down our throats via our eyeballs for a living.
Peter Plate. One Foot Off the Gutter. I don't know where this book had disappeared to for all these years, but it was hiding out in full light of day at City Lights Books in San Francisco with its brothers and sisters. All of them put out by Seven Stories Press, seven or eight novels, four of them set in the Mission.
I gulped it down.
One Foot Off the Gutter is spooky, dissident noir just off the rails. A constant buzzing in the ears. A queasiness in the gut. A city on fire.
Why Plate decided to tell the story—partially through the eyes of a semi-shell-shocked, pot-bellied San Francisco cop with a death wish—is one of those beautiful mysteries that will keep this book on a shelf of its own for as long as noir is being written. The little I know of Plate's background—the early drug dealing, the seven years spent squatting in abandoned San Francisco tenements, his run-ins with the establishment—would have made that an interesting choice.
What makes it a brilliant choice is the fact that Coddy, Plate's cop, is as pitiable as the lowlifes he arrests. Coddy isn't corrupt or barbaric or a philistine so much as a man looking for a place to live. Literally. Cody, and his partner Bellamy, are homeless. (Bellamy's living out of the squad car, Coddy's need for a house becomes an obsession.)
There are moments of standard noir in One Foot Off the Gutter, the template moments that identify it as noir: the achey joints, the bullets and the thoughts before they hit, the hardboiled internal monologue.
And then there are the moments that soar. Places Plate goes to that are difficult for writers of any genre to get to. Lines and paragraphs you read and reread, shaking your head.
Through Coddy's simmering, off-kilter narration you get a rat's eye view of a city where everybody, on both sides of the law, is struggling through the same cesspit. I guess the only true demons in Plate's microcosm would be the yuppies—I assume this was San Francisco in the 1990's, though at times it feels like Fort Apache the Bronx—peering out the windows of their health food stores, scurrying when the bullets fly.
All I can say by way of a coda is that I hope this angry but generous and one-of-a-kind book attracts a wider audience now that underground noir is seeing a new day.
For more on Plate, check this interview out.