Get SF Weekly Newsletters
Pin It

Playing With History 

A fictional account of a real event leaves us choking on our cream puffs

Wednesday, Mar 31 2004
Having been invited to high tea and cocktails at the Palace Hotel this month by Chronicle Books, which was hosting a party to launch James Dalessandro's new book 1906, I was suffused with that sense -- is it guilty luck or lucky guilt? -- that comes from doing fancy things you don't have to pay for. I was suffused, too, with the knowledge, throbbing like a new sore, that it's uncool to get excited about such things. But complimentary petits fours, the earthquake: What's not to like?

The Palace, after all, was where opera superstar Enrico Caruso was staying when the earthquake jolted him out of bed in the wee hours of April 18, 1906. Gutted in the fire, the place was rebuilt at huge expense.

It wasn't until I was halfway to the hotel on BART that I noticed, in tiny white letters on my invitation, under the monolithic numerals 1906 against a grainy photograph of flames and desolation, those two words I have come to dread:


Who knew? Well, obviously, everybody knew. The author knew. Chronicle Books knew. I'd just been lazy, as usual, and assumed that a new book about the San Francisco quake and fire, especially given such a bloodless title, must be nonfiction. Besides which, Chronicle doesn't do much fiction. It usually does lavish, exquisitely packaged nonfiction. And it's not that I hate novels just for being novels, in some knee-jerk way. Novels can be good. Gidget started out as a novel, and it was good. The trouble -- my trouble -- is novels in which flesh-and-blood historical figures who have lived and died are transmuted into fictional characters whom the novelist yanks about as if they were Barbie and Ken dolls, forcing them into half-authentic, half-concocted scenes with purely fictional characters while speaking made-up dialogue.

It's one thing to make up dialogue for made-up characters. Making up dialogue for real people who really lived and never said these things is something else entirely. It's called lying. It's called fucking about with history. And it will produce generations of readers unable to discern fact from fiction, truth from whatever the hell, and not caring -- just as kids watching Bud Light and Hyundai commercials fail to realize that "Blitzkrieg Bop" and "In My Room" were once actual songs.

But it really sells. So OK.

The hotel's Garden Court breathes vintage decadence, with marble columns rising gold and creamy-white to a mostly glass roof supporting dangling chandeliers. Pale tablecloths and matching napkins and tea-ware lie in soft counterpoint to the brightness of smoked-salmon finger sandwiches, raspberry tarts, the pointed tips of huge strawberries emerging from thick chocolate coats. The tables with their plush blue-and-gold-striped chairs are filling, slowly, with media and city officials. But too slowly. A man has committed suicide this afternoon by leaping from an overpass onto Interstate 280. Traffic is jammed to a standstill, marooning the TV crews that, en route to this book launch, now can't come.

The fire chief is here in crisp dark uniform and blond ponytail. Also here is former Police Chief Alex Fagan, who now heads the city's Office of Emergency Services. At a podium, author James Dalessandro -- whose previous works include the 1993 cop/opera thriller Bohemian Heart -- reminds us that for three solid days the post-quake flames raged, devouring 87 percent of the city's buildings. Dalessandro says the city was caught completely unprepared, that its spooked cops shot anyone who even looked like a looter, and that the official number of reported dead -- about 500 -- represents about one-tenth of the truth.

He explains that his novel's cast of characters includes genuine flesh-and-blood figures who really were here during the earthquake (Caruso, for one, and the voracious Chinatown madam Ah Toy), completely invented figures (like the feisty but imaginary young female reporter Annalisa Passarelli, the tale's narrator), and still other flesh-and-blood figures who were here but not during the earthquake (boardinghouse owner and notorious kidnapper Shanghai Kelly, who was long dead by 1906 but whom Dalessandro reanimates to suit his own purposes) -- and he justifies this mixture by declaring himself "astonished by the ability of fiction to connect facts." After all, he notes, Harriet Beecher Stowe revealed in Uncle Tom's Cabin shocking truths about slavery, shredding the South's standard slaves-are-happy bombast.

With Uncle Tom's Cabin, Dalessandro says, "a novelist changed history and ultimately triggered the Civil War. It is one of the grandest goals of fiction to have an effect" on the bigger picture, on the future: in his case, on our ability to handle the next major disaster. Immersing ourselves in the rush and romance of his impassioned version of the saga -- in which gamblers, lovers, dreamers, sojourners, statesmen, crooks, clergy, cops, and teenage Chinese sex slaves crawl with varying success through the wreckage (though readers who care deeply about spelling must contend with characters "peddling" bicycles along streets, and such) -- we will, the author hopes, learn the value of vigilance and volunteering. A portion of the book's profits will be donated to the city's emergency services.

"Will it be as bad next time?" Dalessandro asks an audience that, as it nibbles cream puffs, is pondering not only fault lines, but also explosions and anthrax. He answers himself sepulchrally: "No. It will be worse."

He says he got the idea for his book from another book, Gladys Hansen's 1989 nonfiction account Denial of Disaster. Hansen, a San Francisco librarian, spent 20 years striving to discover and reconfigure the actual number of quake-and-fire casualties. She is here at the Palace today, beaming graciously as Dalessandro thanks her for having produced the work that inspired him. After all, without her dogged research -- the gritty scrutiny of original archives that for the nonfiction writer is compulsory but for the fiction writer is, comparatively, frosting -- he would not have sold the film rights for his novel to Warner Bros. But he has. Watch for the movie later this year.

Taking the mike, Hansen admits that when she started reading the copy of 1906 Dalessandro had given her, "I kept thinking, 'Aha, I caught him again! The facts are wrong. The names are wrong.'" She smiles, and her eyes gleam. "But then I had to remind myself: It's fiction."

Which it is. And isn't.

"This is the greatest story never told," Dalessandro says. He means that the scenarios of the catastrophe that pervade our collective unconscious are far from accurate. In 1906 the city was, in fact, being run into the ground by politicians who were on the verge of being indicted for corruption that fateful April. Flames raced unabated and hydrants ran dry because cisterns built to store water had long since been pressed into alternate use as garbage dumps. Well-meaning cops shot scores of innocent people who were simply carrying their own goods out of their own burning shops and homes. Corpses lay everywhere.

"It's frightening," the author muses, "how little we know of our own history." And thus is born the brazen premise of filtering truth through the wiggly lens of fiction, taking liberties with life and death to wake up readers who otherwise don't care about stuff that happened in the past.

"Where I started was fact. Where I went was fiction," Dalessandro says with the cool confidence of one who hopes we will follow, "and hopefully it will lead us back to fact."

About The Author

Anneli Rufus


Subscribe to this thread:

Add a comment

Popular Stories

  1. Most Popular Stories
  2. Stories You Missed


  • clipping at Brava Theater Sept. 11
    Sub Pop recording artists 'clipping.' brought their brand of noise-driven experimental hip hop to the closing night of 2016's San Francisco Electronic Music Fest this past Sunday. The packed Brava Theater hosted an initially seated crowd that ended the night jumping and dancing against the front of the stage. The trio performed a set focused on their recently released Sci-Fi Horror concept album, 'Splendor & Misery', then delved into their dancier and more aggressive back catalogue, and recent single 'Wriggle'. Opening performances included local experimental electronic duo 'Tujurikkuja' and computer music artist 'Madalyn Merkey.'"