Book Review : Peter Plate - Snitch Factory (2001)
Snitch Factory, the second novel in Peter Plate’s Mission Quartet, retains the same grittiness and keen observations of San Francisco’s underworld but takes the action out of the gutters and abandoned buildings to focus on what goes on in the Department of Social Services complex on Otis Street. Despite the move to a more respectable atmosphere, the novel is as stark and brutal as its predecessor and offers an unflinching look at the world of food stamps and government help that solidly framed in a narrative about wanting to help, following the rules, and living surrounded by danger.
Charlene Hassler is a social worker with a dark past and a new husband. She’s trying hard to make her career work, but that’s tough to do in a place where everyone is desperate, all coworkers have an agenda, and bureaucracy reigns supreme. Charlene works a lot of cases and some of the people she has to deal with appear obsessed with making her life more difficult. Sadly, what those welfare recipients do to her psychological and emotional wellbeing is almost insignificant when compared to what she must endure from her coworkers, especially her boss, who promised her more than he could deliver a long time ago, and her arch-enemy, a woman who thinks Charlene and her husband are dealing food stamps on the side. When a custodian is caught going thorough her desk and later shoots Charlene in the leg, the pieces of a chaotic puzzle start falling into place, and the result is more of the same garbage the social worker has been dealing with since she started working at the DSS.
Plate, who lived in abandoned buildings in San Francisco for eight years, is a superb observer of street life. This talent was on full display in One Foot Off the Gutter, the first novel in the Mission Quartet, but it is only somewhat used here. While the people that come and go and the action in the streets is as real as that previous novel, this one is a tad more tame because the folks involved are in situations that, while definitely desperate, are not as compelling as those of people living day to day and meal to meal. Also, there is a flaw in Snitch Factory that’s hard to overlook despite Plate’s darkly poetic prose: the plot itself is thin at best and some of the characters are not as multidimensional as those he presented in the first novel of the Quartet.
Despite its shortcomings, the power of Plate’s writing makes Snitch Factory worth a read. The desperation of the people trying to survive on both sides of the spectrum is palpable and the atmosphere of violence and anger is inescapable:
A woman’s word was her life. If someone didn’t come through in our line of business, you could forget charity and forget about human decency. The devil would have his due and on a certain day, if you didn’t take care of the triflings, you’d end up bleeding to death on the dirty brown linoleum floor in the waiting room.
Perhaps Snitch Factory is not as successful as some of Plate’s other novels because, while in most of his work he merely presents the truth of life on the wrong side of the tracks, in here he walks a strange, fine line between his typical chronicling of life in the gutter and an acerbic look at the welfare system that dips its toes into satire. That being said, the intensity of the prose and the fact that a drinking, smoking female antihero with a shady past stands at the center of this narrative makes this one worth the couple of hours it takes to read it.