The Angels of Catastrophe
Peter Plate (Seve Stories Press)
At it's weakest, noir is only about fashion. It's about style. It's a sublimated designer's urge transferred and resurfacing through a guise of machismo. The setup? A good guy looking for a bad guy, trying to solve a crime or a string or crimes in any seedy town. But the characters--they step on stage with scars and fine suits, a gat in the pants. Readers get to know the shape of each haircut, the color of shoes, the photo-spread layout, who gets shot first where and when, and how blood pools on a fine Armani suit or cheap designer knock-off.
"Lonely Boy had shaved his head to the scalp; his round, brown-skinned skull gleamed to perfection like a chrome hubcap. He was wearing blue Nike trainers, white athletic socks pulled up to the kneecaps, a pair of ankle-length overalls, and a starched black Fruit of the Loom T- shirt." This catalogue of street punk garb is from The Angels of Catastrophe, by Peter Plate. The book is the fourth in a series of Plate's "Mission Quartet," set in San Francisco's Mission District. The careful description of Lonely Boy's outfit offers a confused shift in point-of-view; although it's a third person narrator, the narrator isn't omniscient, and most often is aligned with the main character, Durrutti. How does the narrator know Lonely Boy's socks are up to his knees when his overalls are down to his ankles? It's a minor detail, an irritating breach in logic, contributing only as a remark about fashion.
"A fifty-year-old overweight Caucasian male attired in double-knit slacks and a wide-lapel rayon disco shirt from the 1970's." That's Plate's description of a plain-clothes cop, on the job. "...an expensive cotton-candy yellow toupee was plastered to the top of this head. His off-white complexion was pitted, the lifelong acne tracks underscored by the florescent lighting."
A page later, the narrator zooms in for an even closer look at this man's dermatological disaster. "Kulak's coarse-skinned face was yellow and pink and red under the office lights, bumpy, uneven and covered with shaving nicks and ingrown hairs."
Every character in the book appears in roughly the same way--clothes, hair, and terrible skin. Even a transvestite described as "drop dead gorgeous" is plagued with a crop of acne. The most despicable of the cops is a "hard-nosed, muscular, twenty-seven-year-old Jewish cop nicknamed Zets because of his lousy complexion--his skin resembled the surface of the moon up close." With Zets, Plate focuses again on the fashion elements of skin and an intentional hairdo: "Most policeman modeled conservative hair stylings like your traditional crewcut, though a majority of the old-timers went for the flattop-with-fenders style. Others preferred the anti-Semitic skinhead cut, big with the ladies. Zets had gone overboard by giving himself a mohawk. The outcome had been tragic. The mohawk, waxed with an unguent, refused to remain spiky, due to the riot helmet, and looked like a polyester throw rug."
The narrator's ally, Maimonides, is "content to let his clothes speak for him," which seems to be the underlying idea with all the characters. "His Florsheims were burnished to a brilliant purplish finish. His hair was washed and gelled. His face was shaved and powered." In a local taqueria, the Salvadoreno dope dealers uniformly wear "blue Nike windbreakers, khakis, and San Francisco Giants baseball hats..." There's a precision to this dialogue of fashion, a care for relaying each social signifier.
The plot is simple: a cop was shot with a gun that once belonged to Durrutti. Unless Durrutti finds the guilty party, he'll be charged with the shooting. Durruti's plan? To walk the streets and look at clothes, hair, and skin, occasionally doing drugs and commenting on the influx of wealth into the neighborhood, hoping to find the guy to which he sold the gun. It's naive of Durrutti to believe this man will tell any truth that might incriminate himself--why should he get involved?--and of course, that doesn't happen.
The Mission District setting affords Plate an opportunity to comment on San Francisco's recent changes, with money moving in. "The potholes in the roadbed were ankle deep. Homeless winos napped sprawled on the cement. BMW's and Land Rovers, fleets of them, hogged every available parking space. Wealthy white people dwelled there. Some Mexicans, too."
Of course, gentrification and yuppification is a real dynamic, in San Francisco and other urban centers. Unfortunately, the flip side of the issue is that in order to invoke the hard life of the street, authors such as Plate often turn again and again to simply pointing out visible ethnic groups, along with prostitutes and drug dealers, as though an ethnic mix itself, or a visible Latino population, necessarily indicates a lack of legitimate economy, furthering stereotypes. "The sidewalks were rife with pillow vendors from Nicaragua, homeless winos, pimps in black leather jackets, and Honduran women dealing oranges in five pound bags."
This book has a few over-extended metaphors ("Snitches were similar to fine wine...") and Daschielle Hammett knock offs ("...the wind had more teeth in it than a shark's mouth...). Still, it held my interest, at least up until an absurd scene near the end. At this point, Lonely Boy manages to escape by attacking Zets with a half-eaten burrito. Zets is armed with Lonely Boy's gun, but then fully incapacitated due to the burrito. We're told "The salsa stung him in the eyes; the gooey beans clogged his nostrils. Rice got under the collar of his combat overalls." And Lonely Boy makes his escape. In yet another nod to fashion, he pulls his hoodie a little tighter, throws himself through a plate glass window, and lands on the street among tourists, identifiable by their fashion- faux pas costume of Bermuda shorts and straw hats, of course.