February 2007

Drew Nellins

fiction

Soon the Rest Will Fall by Peter Plate

“The detective’s angular face was even featured; a sensuous mouth, straight nose. His yellow cat’s eyes had the lubricated serenity of a machine.”

So go the best lines in Peter Plate’s otherwise disappointing novel, Soon the Rest Will Fall, and while I do think it’s well-put, those sentences and their six adjectives reveal a great deal about the excesses the author indulges. As I read, I kept thinking how much more I might enjoy it if three-quarters of the descriptors were omitted. I’m not certain it would be a good book at that point, but I am certain it would be a better one. Of course, after such major surgery, it probably wouldn’t be a book-length manuscript.

Page 22: “The guy in the photo had no hair, a big nose, well-formed ears, a defiant mouth, and ashy skin. His eyes were two brown whirlpools of confusion. His chin was larger than a boat’s prow. His jaw line was pugnacious, indicating belligerence.”

There’s a lot more where that came from if you like this sort of thing. As for me, these ridiculously detailed lines had me squirming and skimming. Plate's relentless descriptions of sunlight, parking lots, his characters’ outfits, and everything else rarely left me with a clearer picture of the characters or the action. They only served to distract.

The setup is pretty simple. Christmas week of 2005, convict and lifelong criminal recidivist, Robert Grogan, is released from San Quentin prison, leaving behind his cellmate and prison “wife,” Slatts Calhoun. Grogan makes his way home to his real wife and seven year old daughter in San Francisco. But it’s not exactly the city one usually thinks of when thinking of San Francisco. Plate’s City by the Bay is gritty. Super gritty. You can tell it’s real grit because every other chapter starts with a couple of paragraphs that set the scene by reminding the reader about the bums, corpses, robberies, shootings, and the hot, hot heat detailed (excessively, mind you) in the last chapter intro.

When Slatts gets released early, the difficulties of Grogan’s first week of freedom are compounded as he struggles to keep both wives happy while figuring out how to make a living without returning to prison.

That synopsis sounds pretty compelling -- far better, I think, than the finished product, which is one of the reasons the book is such a let-down.

Anyone who has read about writing has heard the “show, don’t tell” rule of fiction. Certainly, one can make any number of arguments for authors who consistently write affecting stories by doing just the opposite. But Plate breaks the rule with impunity by both showing and telling, as if having no faith in his reader to make sense of the scene or line of dialogue he has just read. Page 31: “Done with that speech, he asked for her approval. ‘What do you say to that?’” In no instance did I feel the need for such supplementary exposition.

To some extent, these weaknesses can be forgiven on the basis of the story’s noir style -- which admittedly makes writing noir fiction pretty damn appealing. Reading lines like “In the prison it was hot enough to boil and egg;” “He had a headache the size of Mount Everest;” and “Her bare legs were whiter than snow,” I wanted to cut Plate some slack. I mean, it couldn’t just be bad, obvious writing. It must be that he’s playing with those hardboiled conventions, right? Actually, I’m not so sure.

Apart from the language, an unsavory criminal protagonist, and a sense that things will not end well, the book doesn’t have any of the qualities of a noir novel. As a result, the language feels like an odd fit, as if the writer devised a plot and then chose by lottery the mode of delivery.

I will say this for Soon the Rest Will Fall: it’s a quick read, especially if you skip over such redundancies as “dead man’s corpse” and “crimson blood.” And I did enjoy some of the scenes between Slatts and Grogan. The moments they share are easily the most compelling in the book, and I could feel myself willing Plate to push their story further. After all, how long has it been since we’ve seen a really great prison romance? Unfortunately, the wait will have to go on. As the book reaches its conclusion, so too ends the connection between the men and any hope of pairing this promising plot with the quality of writing that would make it worth reading.

Soon the Rest Will Fall by Peter Plate
Seven Stories Press
ISBN: 1583227474
168 Pages