“Lost Patrol ”
“Tombstones in His Eyes”
“The Apotheosis of Nathan McKee”
Reviewed by Aaron Bradford Starr
For those unfamiliar with the Tenderloin district of San Francisco, Gene O’Neill’s new short story collection Taste of Tenderloin would seem to present a dark fantasy of urban decay, a place that is a catch-bin of our society’s detritus. The broken individuals who inhabit the liquor stores, run down hour-rate hotels, crack-houses and back alleys described in these tales are the populace of a grim district, and have little more than their afflictions and addictions to bind them to one another. But what is most central to the fates they meet is the Tenderloin itself. The district is a malignant character, a brooding presence that transforms the lives of those it touches.
The singular negativity that permeates these stories will be disconcerting to those who know the real, actual Tenderloin, the one that exists in our world. While urban decay and social disintegration are definitely serious problems, the stories of this anthology are unkind to the progressive element of society working tirelessly to improve the lot of the area. But these stories exist apart from those hopes, and the sense is very much that these projects might well be ongoing, but powerless to alter the thread of the dark supernatural that winds through these streets. The characters of O’Neill’s stories are lost, having, in some decisive point in their past, slipped off the well-lit path, and now wander short roads with no pleasant destinations.
And yet the fate of the merely alcoholic and drug-enslaved is shown to be the most pleasant of the Tenderloin’s options. Early in each of these short tales a wild departure in direction takes place, and the story proceeds to an abrupt end. The situation goes from merely very bad to startlingly bizarre very quickly, and few characters are given the luxury of reflecting on their situation before fate claims them.
This rapid-fire volley of awful endings begins with the very first story, “Lost Patrol.” Strangely, the tale is only tangentially connected to the Tenderloin itself, with protagonist Shane McConnell introduced in a prologue as an older man, a homeless Vietnam veteran sleeping in an alley in the Tenderloin. The story itself, though, takes place in-country decades earlier, with a young PFC McConnell four months into his tour with no enemy contact. The mission at hand is to provide supplies and arms to a Special Forces unit working with the locals.
But the unit in question is suspected to be the semi-mythological Lost Patrol, an undead force of US marines wreaking havoc on enemy forces in places unknown within the dense Vietnamese jungles. While the oddities of the mission–such as the fact they seem to be straying far beyond Vietnam’s borders into neighboring countryside–are intriguing, the supernatural nature of the Lost Patrol is presented in a deadpan fashion, via dialogue, and this strips the climax of much of its power. We are witness to veteran McConnell’s slide into PTSD-aided homelessness in the present-day Tenderloin, but the transition is abrupt. The story’s details draw the reader away from that pivotal place, where they have yet to put down roots. To be so abruptly returned to the Tenderloin makes Lost Patrol feel like less than a full part of this collection, especially as the other tales begin and end within the narrow confines of the district.
Such a tale is “Magic Words,” wherein Lucas Somerville is drawn into a mystical web that originates and ends in the Tenderloin itself. As a marketing consultant whose creative spark seems to have deserted him, Luke is helpless to resist the offer of a strange old woman: an exchange of written words, scrawled onto a particular spot in a certain back alleyway, a spot where what is written becomes what is real. It is urban magic such as this that makes Magic Words a wise choice for the collection’s second story. There are echoes of Lovecraft in the mystical words he is later asked to write for his supposed benefactor, and Lucas’s reward for the transaction is awful yet fitting: to get something for nothing, you have to pay something and get nothing in return.
“Tombstones in His Eyes” continues the buildup of the collection’s momentum, presenting a very readable beginning to an interesting story. Readable, that is, if you ever wanted to know the details of a junkie’s frantic search for their morning fix. While the previous two protagonists both had drug problems, Richie O’Brien is the first full-out hardcore addict we meet, and the details lavished on his degenerate condition and mindset, while harrowing to read, certainly make for a great opening.
Before the story’s most pivotal scene, however, we are presented with one of the Tenderloin’s enduring characters, the double-amputee Short Stuff, or Double S, as he’s called by his many friends. The recurring characters in this anthology live and die, and it’s fun to try to knit together which junkie in another story might have been Richie, or to note the comings and goings of various hookers and street people. But Double S fills a special function, a positive note whenever he’s seen, a friend and helper. As the anthology rolls on Double S makes a number of appearances, always in the form of a knowledgeable presence willing to point the way for protagonists who are hurrying toward dates with doom. And thus his role is more complex than his simple actions might imply. He’s a part of the Tenderloin, almost supernaturally informed, and always where needed to shepherd the condemned along.
“Tombstones in His Eyes” also invests more than the previous stories in Richie’s personal landscape, giving him a tattered support system that’s trying to pull him up from the abyss. But his life of shady dealings and self-destructive goals finally drags him under. Swindling drug dealers is never a healthy occupation, but Richie has failed to heed the warning signs that assault his every sense when he meets with the new source of drugs in the neighborhood: the well-named Mr. Doom. Ritchie’s fate is abrupt, but packs more emotional impact from the carefully crafted setup. Ritchie is one of Tenderloin’s best protagonists, but leaves some of the later tales feeling less satisfying as a result.
A case in point is the next story, “Bushido.” The Ugly Man is plagued by badly-healed burn scars that cover much of his body, but it is his spirit that is the more disfigured. Living the life of an alcoholic derelict, the story opens with a litany of the now-familiar agonies of the serial substance abuser. The main problem is that, by now, we’ve read about three others who lived for their next fix, and by this fourth story the details are losing their power. Also, the dreary supporting cast begins to pall, as our protagonist stumbles past a lineup of murderous pimps, abused hookers, and street people of every kind. The Tenderloin’s limits show most strongly in this tale, and it is only when the Ugly Man’s personal transformation begins that the story carries its own weight. But it is over all too quickly, and, though seeming like the first and potentially only positive outcome in the anthology, it still lacks power because there is no clear reason for the changes that overcome the Ugly Man, nor is his final condition adequately explored.
“Balance,” the collection’s next story, is a refreshing rebound from what may have otherwise been a downhill slide in enthusiasm for yet more drug addicts living poorly and dying terribly. But “Balance” is the finest tale of the group, telling the truly gripping tale of Declan Mulcahy, a Desert Storm vet still trying to return to some semblance of normalcy. The tale opens with a gritty, shocking murder spree, in which Declan coolly kills an apparently innocent family in cold blood. But has he really? The strange vision of Justice on his TV set as night says he is not a murderer of unwitting victims, and she assures him he is serving his country still.
The details of Declan’s one-man struggle to avert the so-called “Law of Catastrophic Isostacy” are extremely creepy. His calm execution of targets, and the twisted logic behind who must die next are fascinating. Lady Justice is all-seeing, and the elite killers of whom Declan is just one protect the nation from the ravages of cosmic balance by selective, surgical violence.
What makes “Balance” so great, beyond the perfect ending, is the strange sensation that you’re viewing the world through the eyes of a complete delusional. The specifics even make Declan pause for a moment, wondering if he’s gone completely insane. The moment is riveting, the lucid rise from the waters of insanity. Does the killer know himself for what he is, or does his madness claim him? “Balance” is a fantastic story because it is so much more self-contained than the others in Taste of Tenderloin. It leaves all the right questions unanswered, while giving the reader a satisfying sense of completion.
“The Apotheosis of Nathan McKee” continues this trend. The opening is the first in which the main character doesn’t lead us past a cavalcade of street people, and the first which dispenses plot without first securing drugs or alcohol for someone. In the opening sentences we are witness to the disappearance of Nathan McKee, a physical change that renders him invisible. His nightly alterations begin soon after an assault renders him unconscious, and a new life of super-powered pilfering begins.
The sequence involving his beating highlights another aspect of Taste of Tenderloin that might not be to everyone’s liking, but is consistent throughout these stories, and that is the phonetic rendering of speech. It is unusual to see this in modern writing, where a choice pronunciation might be highlighted in the descriptive part of the exchange, but in the Tenderloin, business is “bidness” and a fool is a “foo.” There is no universally accepted way to encompass the variations of a language, but in the United States it is something of a charged issue, with proponents of Ebonics balancing those for whom the writers of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries are considered serial racists for their depictions of the speech of black people. In Tenderloin the convention might render the sound of the speech more accurately, but some readers might well find this an uncomfortable choice by the author.
“The Apotheosis of Nathan McKee” seems very much like the opening of a longer work. It can stand on its own, and the ending feels rushed, but the final image is definitely one of the beginning of something larger.
“Bruised Soul” ends the crest of the collection, and, while enjoyable, very much feels like a return to the same type of situation with which the Tenderloin has so well acquainted us thus far. Drug habit: check, this time in the form of prescription medications mixed with alcohol. Cast of the Doomed: check, including the sad death of a recurring character encountered earlier. And finally a dose of the inexplicable: a strange but alluring woman in the apartment across from that of the story’s protagonist, Micky D.
This isn’t to say that “Bruised Soul” is a poor story, because it isn’t. But by this point in the collection we’ve seen the elements that compose it too many times before for them to be fully effective. Also, the story has the strange neighbor’s true nature handed to Micky in a manner that is very reminiscent of the information-dump in “Lost Patrol,” in that Micky is simply given a verbal explanation that seems to fit. The story’s climax also seems to borrow from the spirit of “Balance,” so that the real and the unreal are perfectly matched, and open to interpretation. It is this last fact that makes “Bruised Soul” worth reading. While Micky D is a fine creation, his final decision requires too much wading through the muck to reach it unstained.
And at the last, we reach “5150,” our final outing into the Tenderloin. Here we meet an unnamed patrol cop just days away from retirement, burned out, tired, and, most interestingly, host to a parasitic being called the iceworm. The nature of this affliction is never made entirely clear. Is it real, or the product of a mind strained by too much time policing the Tenderloin? Is the vodka used to dull it really the fuel powering a painful stomach ulcer, and, if so, how can it be transmitted like a disease, as it seems to be?
The officer is awash with debilitating experiences, almost counting minutes until he can clock out for good and retire. But the madness he’s been steeped in has soaked in, and he’s now just a burned out alcoholic with a badge he’d like to let drop. After one partner is killed on duty, and another terrible misjudgment of his own kills an innocent boy in the street, his police work has become a combination of dull routine, terrifying chaos, and unrelenting guilt.
Something seems ready to snap, and, given the nature of this collection, we’re primed for the cracks when they begin to appear. The combination of guilt and guiltlessness make for a strange internal brew, and when combined with semi-delusional rationalizations, what follows can only be expected to be violent and self-destructive, and so it is.
The final scene of the collection is the apparent destruction of the Tenderloin itself. Is it merely an earthquake? An attack of some sort? Or is it the Apocalypse the street-preacher was warning about? The perceptions of the protagonist offer no definitive answers, as distorted as they are. Even Double S is at a loss. Are his words about the dead returning to be taken seriously, or are they an attempt at cynicism that the damaged mind of our protagonist takes at face value? We get no clear answers, merely a confusion of images, ending, mercifully, in darkness.
Taste of Tenderloin is not an easy read, and finishing the eighth story is a relief. As unrelentingly dark as it is, Tenderloin might go down better in smaller doses, after the last has fully digested. But the stories are undeniably unique, and there is a solid core of very good work here. Whether the tone or content offers enough for a reader to continue from one story to the next is open to some debate, since the effort of reading them is significant. But one thing is certain: once read, this collection will be difficult to forget. Even if you wanted to.
Taste of Tenderloin
by Gene O’Neill
Trade paperback, $13.95 (U.S.)
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