If the words “fevered imagination” mean anything to you, you’ll have to re-understand them after you read Freaks That Carry Your Luggage Up to the Room.
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.
Rusty Barnes writes stories that end about where they've started, or rise or sink a little towards some new beginning or end, and you never know which. These are spare tales that span a pretty vast terrain of suffering—abortion, teen pregnancy, men unsure of their masculinity, women hemmed in and tormented by those men. But there is a unifying voice, and vision, which is all Barnes', and—what I like best—you hardly know it's there. That said, Mostly Redneck isn't easy reading because of the fineness of the drill bit Barnes turns on all his characters in the early morning hours of their reckonings. You need to be there with him.
Here is Cheryl, a Dandee-Mart cashier, and Glenn, an ex-convict who fixes cars and beats women. They hooked up the night before at a bar, and later at Cheryl's place Glenn came on Cheryl's lap before he got it in. He left her some money and then disappeared. She found him the next day, sleeping in his truck.
He didn't have tinted windows like everyone else, and she saw him lolling there in the driver's seat, head back, mouth open, obviously passed out, with his coat thrown over his body like a blanket. Cheryl made as if to knock on the window when she looked inside. The passenger's seat had a half-empty jug of water, and the floor was littered with empty soda and beer cans, paper bags from fast food places, a plastic bag from Marshall's department store. The ashtray held a toothbrush and a new tube of toothpaste. There was a rolled-up towel pillowing his head. Glenn shifted in his seat to face her, and his eyes opened just a crack, and widened when they saw her; he hit the door locks and turned away. She thought about it for a minute, and not knowing what to do, got in her car.
There is little here that is explicit, but for all its quietness, this awkward and sad meeting delivers a startling realization. If you didn't feel sorry for Glenn before, the sight of him living out of his truck, about as flaccid as his prematurely ejaculating penis, gets you there.
And it comes out from behind a tree and hits you.
Cheryl, like the rest of Barnes' women, will go on living to the same soundtrack—a file of rotating Glenns come to sweep her off her feet and then disappointing.
In a word, if you're a writer yourself, these stories will humble you.
Mostly Redneck is put out by Sunnyoutside, an indie press out of Buffalo, NY.
Reading Scott McClanahan and Sam Pink at the same time is a little like getting lost in a clearcut forest with a sad little kid tugging on each arm.
I'm talking about Hill William, which I'm loving. But more on McClanahan later.
On the back of I Am Going to Clone Myself Then Kill the Clone and Eat It (a Lazy Fascist reprint), it says Sam Pink is a bipolar idiot. I think I've read that before. Or maybe somebody told me that before. Sometimes I wonder if Sam Pink really is a bipolar idiot. Other times you get lines like these. There are plenty of them:
My old roommate let one of his military buddies move in a while back. When the guy moved in, he spent three months on the living room couch staring at the tv. He ate chips and watched soap operas all day. I had a conversation with him one afternoon. He talked about Uganda where he was previously stationed. He said, "Yeah man, if a hooker gets pregnant there, they make her eat the baby right after it's born." I said, "I wish my mom was a Ugandan hooker."