Many outstanding movies, starting with von Stroheim’s “Greed,” based on McTeague by Frank Norris, and including John Huston’s “Maltese Falcon” (from a novel by Dashiell Hammett), Alfred Hitchcock’ “Vertigo,” and Philip Kaufman’s “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” have been set in San Francisco. Here I’m spotlighting the best novels set in San Francisco.
Both of the first two books on my list of best San Francisco-set novels were the basis of great movies. McTeague, the 1899 novel by Frank Norris, was the basis for Erich von Stroheim’s butchered (from ten hours to two and a half) 1924 masterpiece, Greed. The title character is an unlicensed Polk Street dentist whose patient/fiancée Trina wins a lottery ($5K) which does not bring the couple happiness.
“The stuff dreams are made of,” The Maltese Falcon in the 1930 novel of that name Dashiell Hammett is a statuette. It was adapted into a good movie with Bette Davis and Ricardo Cortez in 1931, titles “Satan Met a Lady” (actually that is the title of the 1936 version of the pre-Code movie re-release of which was barred; in 1931 it was titled “The Maltese Falcon”). The 1941 John Huston adaptation with Mary Astor and Humphrey Bogart (not to mention Sidney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre, and Eishu Cook Jr.) is credited as being the first noir movie. It is an instance in which the movie is better than the book. It, too, could have been titled “greed,” the paramount motivation of most of the characters, though detective Sam Spade has some commitment to loyalty.
A lot of other noir movies were set in San Francisco, but as a location for fiction, there’s not much of note through the WWII and postwar times. crime/pulp novelist Charles Willeford III (best known for the 1955 Pick-Up) set Wild Wives (1956) in San Francisco.
Tales of the City was a serial (first in the Pacific Sun, then in the San Francisco Chronicle) by Armistead Maupin bound into an episode novel Tales of the City in 1978, with seven sequels, most recently, Mary Ann in Autumn (2010). The series centers on transsexual Anna Madrigal and the house o Barbary Lane where she mothers tenants, including a girl whose biological father she was, the perky gay Michael ‘Mouse’ Tolliver, the more careerist news reporter Mary Ann, and the womanizing Brian. Lord knows, there are plenty of local and topical references in the series.
Vikram Seth. Who is best known as the author of the massive A Suitable Boy (1993) had earlier written a novel in verse about San Francisco yuppies, Golden Gate (1986). Gore Vidal called it “The Great California Novel” and it is the basis for an opera that has been workshopped. (A musical “Tales of the City” recently ran at ACT in San Francisco, and three operas based on McTeague have been written.)
The rest of the books on my list reach backward in time. My favorite (and shockingly out of print) is Matthew Stadler’s Landscape: Memory (1990), which is primarily set in 1914-16 (i.e., before US entry into the European war). The narrator recalling the love of his life might be considered a gay precursor of Max Tivoli (see below). He is also named Max: Max Kosegarten. The love, before going to college and an accident separated them was Duncan Taqdir, son of a Persian sculptor and an English archeologist (an “exotic”). Max’s mother was also having an affair with Duncan’s father. Stadler evokes not only requited first love but also the post-Earthquake San Francisco, back when the Sunset District was unpopulated sand dunes. Stadler also wrote a moving story of an expat from San Francisco to Paris family, the San Francisco born only child of Michael and Sarah Stein (who discovered Picasso before Michael’s sister Gertrude…) Allan Stein (1999) that is in print and deserves to be better known (it takes place in Seattle and Paris, btw).
China Boy (1991) by Gus Lee is an autobiographical novel that begins with Kai Ting is the youngest child of parents who fled Mao, being beaten up by a Panhandle vicinity bully Big Willie Mack. Kai Ting builds up his puny body (A Chinese American Mark Salzman (Iron and Silk)). The Tiger’s Tail (1996) is not exactly a sequel. Jackson Kan, its protagonist, like Lee went to West Point. The novel s set south of the Korean DMZ in the bitterly cold winter of 1973, with flashbacks to killing a young girl in Vietnam. Bill Lee’s 1999 memoir Chinese Playground is not a novel, but deserves to be better known an account of growing up on the mean streets of San Francisco Chinatown.
Bone by Fae Myenne Ng (1993) chronicles three Chinatown daughters of a sweatshop seamstress and a merchant seaman (laundryman) from the 1960s through the 90s. The suicide of the middle one is the pivot of the novel, and the other two leave The City, the oldest one for the ‘burbs, the youngest for NY. It is less melodramatic than Tan’s novels, but I would not say it is unmelodramatic!
Amy Tan’s novels The Joy Luck Club (1989) has a large cast of characters, San Francisco daughters of China-born mothers. The numbers are reduced to a mother-daughter pair (Lu Ling and Ruth) in her best novel, The Bonesetter’s Daughter, published in 2001.Well, the “auntie” who raised Lu Ling is also a major character (who knows where the ancient bones of “Peking Man” are), and the China parts are more interesting than the San Francisco ones. It, too, has served as the basis for an opera (by Stewart Wallace with a libretto by Tan, premiered by the San Francisco Opera in 2008).
Its reverse-aging gimmick kept me from reading Andrew Sean Greer’s The Confessions of Max Tivoli when it appeared in 2004, despite having much admired Greer’s novel The Path of Minor Planets (set on a small island in the South Pacific to which American astronomers have repaired in 1965 to watch Comet Swift). When I picked it up, I was entranced and moved, as well as intrigued by the historical detail of Max between 1871 and 1941.
I did not wait long after the publication of Greer’s next novel, The Story of a Marriage (2008) set in the Sunset District ca 1953 with frisson or racial differences and homosexuality during the McCarthy era (yes even at the western edge of the continent).
For old-time San Francisco color and a San Francisco author who wrote The Devil’s Dictionary, the series of Ambrose Bierce mysteries by Oakley Hall (born in San Diego, a graduate of Berkeley) should also be mentioned. The first and best is Ambrose Bierce and the Queen of Spades (1998). (BTW, Amy Tan was a student of Hall’s, as was Michael Chabon [Mysteries of Pittsburgh, Wonder Boy, Moonglows.)
I also want to mention four collections of stories set in San Francisco
The People of the Abyss (aka “south of the Slot”—of the Market Street streetcar line) (1903) by Oakland proletarian writer, later turned Sonoma County gentleman farmer, Jack London
The Man With the Heart in the Highlands (1939) by Fresno-native William Saroyan
City Limits (2000) by James Toland (stories set in the Mission District)
Burden of Ashes (2002) by Singapore native Justin Chin, whose frustrations at life as a gay Asian American are also central to the performance pieces colleted in Attack of the Man-Eating Lotus Blossoms (2005)
And a novel set in Colma, where San Franciscans are buried Alive in the Necropolis by Doug Dorst (2008). As “Colma: The Musical” which was not based on the novel notes, the population of Colma is 1200 who are alive and more than two million who are dead).
I am puzzled by when Going to See the Elephant by Virginia native Rodes Fishburne takes place, though it certainly moves around town on MUNI.
Though playing a significant part in romanticizing San Francisco as a city of refuge for nonconformists (not just “beats”) I also have to mention On the Road by Jack Kerouac (published in 1957, written some years earlier) , though it is primarily set on the road, not in the cities of the east or west coast.
Some other contenders for consideration (to read), novels that are set in San Francisco”
Caroline’s Daughter (1991) by Alice Adams, a native of Virginia who lived for many years in San Francisco
Maleficus (1999), a newsroom thriller by a former San Francisco Chronicle editor and writer James Toland
the post-punk lesbian Valencia (2000) by Michelle Tea (the Valencia Street corridor used to have lesbian bars and coffee shops; Tea, who was born in Chelsea, Massachusetts, for many years she hosted monthly queer readings at the San Francisco Public Library)
SoMa (2007) and The Sower (2009) by Kemble Scott
Little Brother (2008) by Torontonian Cory Doctorow
The High Ground: A Novel of Terror in San Francisco (2011) by Mark Cotter
Blood Sucking Fiends (1995), A Dirty Job (2006), You Suck (2007), Bite Me (2010) by Toledo-native Christopher Moore, who has returned to San Francisco after some years on Maui,
Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore (2012) by Robin Sloan and its ebook-only prequel, Ajax Penumbra, 1969 (2013) are a little too fantasy fiction for me, but grounded in history, including ships sunk in San Francisco harbor after crews rushed up to Gold Country
(Latinos and blacks are underrepresented across this list, those of Asian descent other than Chinese unrepresented. ACT premiered an interesting play by Philip Kan Gotanda’s “After the War” in 2007, but novels?)
Martin Eden by Jack London
The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas by Gertrude Stein
Humpty Dumpty in Oakland by Philip K. Dick
1967 Hell’s Angels: A Strange and Terrible Saga by Hunter S. Thompson
The Fortress of Solitude by Jonathan Letham
The Fifth Book of Peace by Maxine Hong Kingston