Review of San Fran ‘60s, M. W. Jacobs. Escallonia Press, 2017.
If you want an insider, Gonzo-style, journalistic account of daily life in late ‘60s Haight-Ashbury, this is your book. Jacobs gives a series of varied-length vignettes moving back and forth across time, as our personal memory moves back and forth across time, from the early 60s to the 80s, from San Francisco to a cabin and milk truck proto-commune in the Mendocino forests, with forays to Mexico and New York. But the keynote keeps coming back to 1967, the Summer of Love in the Upper Haight.
Some might wish for more pop and drama, or maybe a more well-wrought plot to sustain a rollicking ride. I myself was looking for a bit more development of the ideals that we all associate with the hippies. These stories can get a little dark after 150 pages. But perhaps this is all personal preference. What Jacobs does he does well, and that is to give an unromanticized, street-level account of the male hippie’s daily hunt (in both its comical and disturbing aspects) for chicks and drugs and ways to beat the draft. We do get some dramatic tension with recurring mini-plots that thread through multiple stories – the “speed disaster,” Bernie’s big secret – but many of the tales are uneventful, in the way that the stories in James Joyce’s Dubliners are uneventful, giving no payoff but leaving you at a point that’s poised between potential and kinetic energy. If Jacobs’s plot lines don’t keep you on the edge of your sit, though, his prose style always engages. His wit can be purely humorous, as with the “plump, middle-aged straight lady” who works the sidewalk grill and is presently “expounding, spatula in hand, on what was thrown off Tallahatchie bridge in the lyrics of an AM radio hit” (“The Street”). Or it can be disquieting, as when he describes driving high in the fog: “It was Russian roulette and every car that didn’t hit us was an empty chamber” (“Gilroy”). This latter expression too is humorous, no doubt, but it is the humor of Hunter Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, a belly laugh laced with the idea that this could turn very serious any moment.
The parade of momentary but sharply sketched characters is also memorable – the speed freak who’s “a walking filibuster” (“Amateur Insanity”), or Cappy, “a gifted storyteller” who was “short, skinny, and hunched, with a spoon-shaped torso” (“Junkie Love”), or Dan, “who no more believed in God than a man believes in the train that has run over him” (“There Is Only One Misfortune”), or the various “couch nomads” and communist “connoisseurs of outrage” to be found in this “colony of rejects” (“Summer of ‘66”). The characters sometimes come and go too quickly, but the narrator’s observation of them is packed with emotional and psychological nuance. Even his own “frenzied self-analysis” (“Gilroy”) may not be healthy, but it brings us closer to him.
The book’s strengths are in the vivid, grounded sense of time and place, in the parade of quirky but real characters, and in the play of the language when Jacobs works it. Plot and theme seem a little uneven, and as I think back on what I enjoyed most about the book, they do not rise to the top. In my opinion, though, the tradeoff is worth it, as we get a sense of journalistic, unembellished life in the Haight – and beyond the Haight as we come to identify with our narrator in general, to feel his emotional life as his memory moves poignantly back and forth, from the primeval forest moments with Yvette in the ‘70s, then back to ’67, then up to the 1980s, recounting personal loves and losses as he ponders his luck at catching cultural history at just the right time and place.
Reviewed by the author of