Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Season of the Witch

I just finished reading David Talbot's Season of the Witch, which the good folks at Free Press sent along at my request. I received it too late to pitch a review, and I see that the New York Times Book Review has already covered it. (I still may use the book in my class at San Francisco State.) I'll return to that review in a moment, but first let me say that after some initial misgivings, I found Talbot's account of San Francisco's roller-coaster ride through the 60s, 70s, and 80s both informative and entertaining.

My misgivings arose from the over-the-top style and what seemed to be a highly synthetic account of San Francisco (especially the Haight) in the 1960s. But as I got deeper into the book, I realized that the style was in many ways adequate to the topic. To be sure, there were cliches, false notes, and mixed metaphors, but the story Talbot tells is an extravagant one, and I came to enjoy and even admire his energetic phrase-making.

I also realized that his selection and emphasis worked, at least for me, and that his original research was substantial. I really dug the material on Vincent Hallinan and his progeny, for example. His chapters on the Good Earth commune and other "heavy hippies" is a welcome addition to the usual accounts of the Diggers. His treatment of the Zebra killings of the 1970s fills in a lot of blank spaces for me. In a series of short, punchy chapters, he guides readers through more familiar material about Jim Jones, George Moscone, Harvey Milk, and Dan White, but he also adds important details about the SFPD and its culture as well as conservative pol John Barbagelata, who was sounding the alarms about Jones and the threat he posed to the city. Talbot does a good job on Dianne Feinstein, whom he compares to Margaret Dumont in a Marx Brothers movie but also credits with safely navigating the city through one of its most difficult periods. And though I was initially skeptical about his claim that the San Francisco 49ers helped redeem the deeply troubled city in the 1980s, I have to admit that he marshals impressive evidence to support that claim.

So what does the New York Times review make of all this? Although Ellen Ullman's take on the book is more negative, I don't actually disagree with most of what she says. But I think she comes quite close to a reviewing no-no when she starts outlining the book she wanted to read (or write). That book, it turns out, would include more coverage of women activists, including "a bunch of really angry women marching through [COYOTE founder Margo] St. James’s Tenderloin turf."

David Talbot fired off a letter to the Times, which they ran. (Some would say this is an authorial no-no.) Here's the last part of Ullman's reply:
My objections to his book are literary and intellectual. And, yes, political. I cheered for the 49ers. But Talbot devotes two chapters — two — to their winning the Super Bowl, and not two pages to the women’s organizations that changed our political and social life. This is all you need to know about nits and tribes and equal weights.
Let me say again that I find a lot to agree with in Ullman's review. But her comment about the two chapters on the 49ers is misleading unless we already know that the book has 36 (short) chapters. Also, the evidence presented in the book suggests that many San Franciscans cared a lot more about the 49ers than about the women's organizations she has in mind. So no, I don't think that's all we need to know about nits and tribes and equal weights.

UPDATE: I heard from two friends about this post, both very knowledgeable and with different takes on the book. Randy Shaw, who has forgotten more about workaday San Francisco politics than I will ever know, sent me a critical review he posted on Beyond Chron. As executive director of the Tenderloin Housing Clinic, Randy is especially attuned to housing and redevelopment issues, which figure in his review.

I also heard from Duffy Jennings, the Chronicle reporter who covered the Patty Hearst kidnap, the Zodiac serial murders, the Moscone and Milk assassinations, the Dan White murder trial, and the riot that followed the White verdict. Duffy is mentioned in the book. Talbot notes that when Dianne Feinstein announced the murders of Moscone and Milk at City Hall, she stopped herself from breaking down by focusing on a familiar face--Duffy's. Anyone who has seen that footage will recall how gripping it is. Incredibly, Duffy ended up in my class at SF State a few years ago and graciously agreed to cover this material for a subsequent one. Duffy's comment on the book: "Even as a reporter immersed in many of these events at the time, I learned a lot from Talbot's work."

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