San Fran ’60s

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.

  

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Freud’s Wolf Man and Joyce’s Dubliners

It’s hard to read Freud’s case histories of the Rat Man (1909) and the Wolf Man (1918) and not be fascinated. Most intriguing of all is how Freud slowly pieces together the patient’s unconscious backstory using what little the patient gives him, small memories that have stuck with the patient for some reason: he was holding his mother’s hand as a toddler, and she was lamenting her illness to a doctor she was seeing off at the train station, and her words made a deep impression; he was standing with his governess in front of the house watching a carriage drive off with his father, mother, and sister, and then walked peacefully back into the house with his governess; there was a picture book with a wolf standing upright that his sister had used to frighten him. Each snapshot seems insignificant but left its mark, and indeed these “insignificant” moments become defining moments, albeit unconsciously, that shape all the subsequent life of the patient’s psyche.

Notice the similarity to James Joyce’s Dubliners (1914). Joyce spearheaded a turn in the history of the novel away from the perfectly crafted plotlines of Dickens toward something more subjective. What happens when you can no longer rely on plot milestones and neat closures to frame the flow of meaning? What happens – at least if you are in the early 20th century – is you stumble into a Freudian frame of meaning. In Dubliners, each story captures a moment with no big drama but with an impression left on the protagonist’s mind – the character’s disappointment in “Araby” when he arrives too late at a fair and is unable to get a gift for the girl he secretly loved, the child’s sense of the corpse’s presence at an in-home wake (“The Sisters”), the sense of something peculiar and transgressive in the old man’s approach in “An Encounter.” These moments have the same kind of vitality as the memory-scenes in Freud’s case histories. No bells and whistles, but they capture an impression that leaves a deep mark on the psyche.

I don’t know how deliberate Joyce’s Freudian ground of meaning was, but history makes some cross-pollination inevitable. Virginia and Leonard Woolf’s Hogarth Press was offered (but declined) Joyce’s Ulysses for publication around the same time that they were publishing English translations of Freud’s on-going works (and poems by the likes of T. S. Eliot). Certainly all these towering early modernists – Joyce, Eliot, Woolf, Pound, D. H. Lawrence – were moving in the same circles, with Woolf’s Bloomsbury Group as one of the nuclei. But however tenuous the cross-connects, there is no doubt that Joyce’s Dubliners participates in reshaping the form of fiction away from the organizing principles of plot and climax. (Woolf’s To the Lighthouse [1927], to me, would be the greatest example of the modernist novel built around subjective points of reference, but Dubliners is closer to the kick-start.) Joyce thus helps to reshape modern identity – first by changing the form in which we see these human stories transacted, and secondly by changing the role of the reader. The reader must orient differently to Dubliners than he had to Dickens. No more of the objective markers that make Dickensian characters so memorable (one thinks, e.g., of Gradgrind, “whose head was all covered with knobs, like the crust of a plum pie”), or of the dramatic climax that brings all the plot threads together. In the trajectory of fiction from Dubliners to Woolf, the reader herself is cast into the role of psychoanalyst, peering into the minds of minor characters, looking for how lasting impressions are made of seemingly trivial events. It’s not about what the characters are doing so much as it is about the dynamics of being.

So was Joyce deliberately deploying Freud? Was Freud perhaps influenced by modernist writers and artists of the day? I’ll let others measure out the exact influences, but I’d recommend this experiment for my own readers: Pick up a copy of Freud’s Three Case Histories, which includes the Wolf Man, notice how reading it places you into the role of psychoanalyst, and ask yourself if the reader is not cast into the same role when he or she reads Dubliners or To the Lighthouse. And ask yourself if that shift in orientation about how we read does not partly reflect and partly implement a shift of human identity into its modern form.

Related: Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon/Sula; Jung on Joyce’s Ulysses