Book Review : Peter Plate - One Foot Off the Gutter (2001)
The first thing you should know about Peter Plate is that he honed his literary chops during the eight years he spent squatting in abandoned buildings in San Francisco. Between his hard-earned knowledge of the streets, his keen eye for reading people and situations, and his talent as a writer, Plate, who was named a Literary Laureate of San Francisco in 2004, writes gritty crime fiction that focuses on those beat down by life, the authorities, and themselves.
One Foot Off the Gutter is the first novel in Plate’s Mission Quartet, all of which take place in the rough, multicultural, drug-infested streets of the Mission District in San Francisco. The narrative takes place in the late 1980s and follows Coddy, the novel’s unhappy, underpaid, overweight policeman narrator, and Bellamy, his womanizing partner who lives out of the back of their patrol car. The streets are in more turmoil than usual because a fellow officer had been gunned down, and that makes everyone in the neighborhood nervous. Coddy and Bellamy patrol the neighborhood daily, but nothing is routine. The Mission District is full of all kinds of criminals and abandoned buildings that hide dangerous transients. Things get complicated when Coddy becomes obsessed with one of these abandoned buildings, one that houses a couple of armed thieves on the run. Between Coddy’s dangerous fixation on acquiring the house, Bellamy’s new girlfriend, and the couple’s refusal to vacate the building despite the fact that the law is sniffing around it regularly, it seems like violence is always about to erupt, and no one will be safe if it does.
One Foot Off the Gutter is oppressively and relentlessly dark and violent. Everything in this narrative is broken and dirty; every character an emotional and psychological mess. Even Coddy, who could be seen as the light in all the darkness because he’s happily married and has a house, is a study in mental breakdowns and unhealthy manias. Despite this inescapably gloomy atmosphere, Plate’s writing keeps readers turning pages because he manages to build tension even when he focuses on irrelevant details for the sake of atmosphere:
Once in a while he saw a legless pigeon dragging itself over the pavement in a macabre dance of bravado and pathos, using its wings to navigate the asphalt while wearing an expression of hapless woe on its miniature face. It was hard to look at them. It was impossible not to.
More than a narrative about a few characters, One Foot Off the Gutter is a novel that explores the complicated dichotomies between the haves and have nots. Bellamy has none of the things Coddy does, but he’s more content with his situation. In fact, Bellamy, thanks to a bizarre friend/partner relationship he has with Coddy, becomes the victim of his partner’s single-minded nature and dangerous quest for a house. Likewise, the narrative is never judgmental and simply offers an unflinching view of a place and its residents:
Police helicopters were seeing circling over a mini bus stuffed to bursting with passengers on Mission Street. Dope dealers and evangelicos were peddling their wares at the corner of Sixteenth Street and Mission. With its brick pavement, news vendor booths, the dopemen selling drugs, and with the evangelicos droning out songs about redemption through their tinny two watt portable amplifiers, screeching the lyrics into feedbacking microphones—the devil was having a lively day at the intersection.
Being new to Plate’s work and realizing very quickly that his writing is that kind I would immediately recommend, I was paying special attention to elements in One Foot Off the Gutter that didn’t work for me or that paled in comparison to everything else the author does well. In this novel, there are a few passages in which he appears to be trying too hard or strays too far from the main plot. For example, there’s an entire chapter told from the perspective of the coveted house. While interesting and very poetic, the chapter bogs down the action a bit. Luckily, the entire last third of the narrative is a constant crescendo that only winds down after a satisfying explosion of violence. Likewise, the ending itself is a tad long-winded, but probably because Plate was trying to show that people never change, and when they do, it’s because they’ve been forced to do so and hate their new self.
I’m usually not a fan of series, but I started reading the second novel in the Mission Quartet the same day I finished One Foot Off the Gutter. Peter Plate is a talented storyteller, and his grimy, brutally honest portrayal of the Mission District at that time makes for truly great reading. Furthermore, this first novel in the quartet was more than enough to make me want to make sure his name is on the radar of all fellow crime fiction lovers.