FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Murder, Class and Late-Capitalism in the Tenderloin

A Portrait in the Tenderloin, a new mystery from the small press publisher Ithuriel’s Spear, is writer John Goins’ first novel. Set in the underbelly of late 2003 San Francisco, Goines’ story puts Bill Haywood, an African-American reporter for a community paper in the city’s tough Tenderloin neighborhood, on a quest to solve the murder of his schizophrenic brother. Said sibling, a street character with substance abuse problems, was working on a wall mural when he was offed for unknown reasons. Goins spent time writing for a community paper much like the one his hero toils for, and the writer clearly knows his turf well.

It’s not for nothing that the book’s main character bears the name of heroic IWW labor activist Big Bill Haywood. Goins uses his novel to comment on avaricious tendencies of late-capitalist society and the challenges faced by anyone who tries to live with a strong moral code in the face of non-stop financial pressures. It accurately depicts San Francisco as a startlingly two-tiered burg with a yawning gap between rich and poor, its relentless gentrification metastasizing fantastic wealth next to dire poverty. Goins describes Market Street on a Sunday is an idyllic, tourist-friendly spot for jogging and strolling toward a Marin-bound ferry from the Embarcadero; “All very nice, but walk down the wrong street and you are quickly brought back to reality—bums sleeping on the sidewalk, junkies, the expensive car of a drug dealer holding up traffic.”

Protagonist Haywood follows an idiosyncratic trajectory that puts him at odds with everyone from the building employees at the apartment where his brother sometimes lived to the SFPD and various bureaucrats and community pillars. Through twists and turns the narrative takes us on a wild ride through a seamy side of town too often ignored in most Bay Area writing. Though not a private eye, in his own way Haywood operates in the tradition of Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe and Ross MacDonald’s Lew Archer, trying to live like a mensch in a rotten world filled with rewards for non-mensch behavior. Like Marlowe and Archer, he’s also a bit of a loner, a tendency exacerbated by being a black man in a well to do, largely white neighborhood. In the vicinity of his apartment the only people who make him feel at home are the Chinese couple he rents his room from.

Some of the women he encounters do not wish him well, one being an outright femme fatale. But there is also one sympathetic young woman who brings out Haywood’s chivalrous side and makes him an even more appealing character.

The story is set near the beginning of the George W. Bush Administration’s Iraq war, and Goins’ social critique extends beyond the forces of greed driving San Francisco’s poor “minority” populations out of the city. For example: “He was an enigma to me. I had no frame of reference for people whose sole purpose in life was getting over on other folks. But then, the whole country was an enigma to me. Was he any different from rich people, bankers and stockbrokers who robbed us blind? Wasn’t our whole empire predicated on stealing from others?”

The book’s cultural references are organic to its compelling narrative and character development; they never feel tacked on or showy in the way of some pretentious reads (hello Robert Parker!). Haywood’s familiarity with medieval Japanese poetry and Kurosawa films makes him interesting, not pompous.

The novel’s editor Francesca Rosa told me that A Portrait in the Tenderloin “was the perfect book to inaugurate” the new mystery series of Ithuriel’s Spear. Rosa emailed me that “In a different literary climate, John Goins would have been snapped up by a major publisher, be we were lucky enough to snag his manuscript.”

Given its emphasis on left politics and a class analysis that never slips into dogmatic preachiness, this novel demonstrates the importance of fiction that too often gets pigeonholed as “genre” work. This ghettoizing allows highbrow talking heads to imply that such fiction is of less intrinsic merit than products of high culture. But it is certainly reasonable to argue that poor people who never get near the Iowa Writers Workshop or its privileged alumni also deserve to have their voices heard.

Ben Terrall is a writer living in San Francisco. 

 

More articles by:

Ben Terrall is a writer living in the Bay Area. He can be reached at: bterrall@gmail.com

Weekend Edition
July 13, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Brian Cloughley
Lessons That Should Have Been Learned From NATO’s Destruction of Libya
Paul Street
Time to Stop Playing “Simon Says” with James Madison and Alexander Hamilton
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: In the Land of Formula and Honey
Aidan O'Brien
Ireland’s Intellectuals Bow to the Queen of Chaos 
Michael Collins
The Affirmative Action Silo
Andrew Levine
Tipping Points
Geoff Dutton
Fair and Balanced Opinion at the New York Times
Ajamu Baraka
Cultural and Ideological Struggle in the US: a Final Comment on Ocasio-Cortez
David Rosen
The New McCarthyism: Is the Electric Chair Next for the Left?
Ken Levy
The McConnell Rule: Nasty, Brutish, and Unconstitutional
George Wuerthner
The Awful Truth About the Hammonds
Robert Fisk
Will Those Killed by NATO 19 Years Ago in Serbia Ever Get Justice?
Robert Hunziker
Three Climatic Monsters with Asteroid Impact
Ramzy Baroud
Europe’s Iron Curtain: The Refugee Crisis is about to Worsen
Nick Pemberton
A Letter For Scarlett JoManDaughter
Marilyn Garson
Netanyahu’s War on Transcendence 
Patrick Cockburn
Is ISIS About to Lose Its Last Stronghold in Syria?
Joseph Grosso
The Invisible Class: Workers in America
Kim Ives
Haiti’s Popular Uprising Calls for President Jovenel Moïse’s Removal
John Carroll Md
Dispatch From Haiti: Trump and Breastfeeding
Alycee Lane
On Heat Waves and Climate Resistance
Ed Meek
Dershowitz the Sophist
Howard Lisnoff
Liberal Massachusetts and Recreational Marijuana
Ike Nahem
Trump, Trade Wars, and the Class Struggle
Olivia Alperstein
Kavanaugh and the Supremes: It’s About Much More Than Abortion
Manuel E. Yepe
Korea After the Handshake
Robert Kosuth
Militarized Nationalism: Pernicious and Pervasive
Binoy Kampmark
Soft Brexits and Hard Realities: The Tory Revolt
Helena Norberg-Hodge
Localization: a Strategic Alternative to Globalized Authoritarianism
Kevin Zeese - Nils McCune
Correcting The Record: What Is Really Happening In Nicaragua?
Chris Wright
The American Oligarchy: A Review
Kweli Nzito
Imperial Gangster Nations: Peddling “Democracy” and Other Goodies to the Untutored
Christopher Brauchli
The Defenestration of Scott Pruitt
Ralph Nader
Universal Voting Dissolves the Obstacles Facing Voters
Ron Jacobs
Vermont: Can It Happen Here?
Thomas Knapp
Helsinki: How About a Fresh START?
Seth Sandronsky
A Fraught Century
Graham Peebles
Education and the Mental Health Epidemic
Bob Lord
How to Level the Playing Field for Workers in a Time of Waning Union Power
Saurav Sarkar
I Got Arrested This Summer (and So Should You)
Winslow Myers
President Trump’s Useful Idiocy
Kim C. Domenico
Outing the Dark Beast Hiding Behind Liberal Hope
CounterPunch News Service
First Big Strike Since Janus Ruling Hits Vermont Streets
Louis Proyect
Survival of the Fittest in the London Underground
David Yearsley
Ducks and Études
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail