May 2004

Gena Anderson


Fogtown by Peter Plate

I saw Lost in Translation with a friend who is a bit of a movie snob. Or, I guess I should say “film” snob. We were walking out of the theater when he observed that the movie was a good “mood piece.” What he meant was that the movie’s plot was not as important as the mood it evoked, or in his words, “the narrative was secondary to the tone." After reading Fogtown I was at a complete loss as how to describe it to anyone else and I remembered my friend’s comments about Lost in Translation. What I guess I am saying is that without the description he gave me, I would have no idea of a way to review this book coherently, so thanks, Scott (this endorsement of you is in no way meant to convey that I will let you subject me to the slow paced and depressing movies you enjoy).

Set on a day in the life of some transients in the Market Street area of San Francisco, Fogtown certainly evokes a feeling of despair and poverty much more than it manages to have a meaningful plot. It starts and ends with the effects that a truck full of money crashing in this depressed area would have on its inhabitants. An old woman named Mama Celeste grabs up a bunch of the money and proceeds to tote it around the area in a tattered shoebox, trying to decide who is worthy of it, but not realizing that she could spend it as well, she still follows her routine and eats at the soup kitchen. The book also follows Mama Celeste’s fellow inhabitant of the Allen Hotel, Stiv Wilkins, as he tries to evade a drug dealer, and find rent for his landlord. The plot bounces back and forth between numerous characters and situations, and even ends up describing Stiv’s hallucinations about a Mexican bandit in detail. Why is he hallucinating about a Mexican bandit? I have absolutely no idea. You may also ask why the publishers chose to harp on the fact that the author “taught himself to write fiction during eight years spent squatting in abandoned buildings." I think they are trying to insist on the authenticity of the writing, when they should just let the book speak for itself.

Plate’s descriptions of his characters’ appearances are so detailed as to be annoying. We are privy to every hair, wrinkle and defect of each person, as well as an accounting of wardrobe down to each missing button and grimy underwear. After one character has her third wardrobe change, I felt myself skimming over the details of her new outfit. While those descriptions became tedious, the detailed portrayal of San Francisco is what made the book enjoyable for me. Plate writes about this area of the city with obvious affection and sketches the feeling of the area with dexterity. He also includes in his narration a historical chronicle, mentioning past events as if they are inseparable from the places where they occurred. I have never even been to San Francisco, but I felt myself slipping into the imagination of the author like I knew exactly where he was.

Fogtown by Peter Plate
Seven Stories Press
ISBN: 1583226397
161 pages