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Peter Plate: San Francisco’s Now Noir Novelist

Photograph Source: Seven Stories Press – Link
Where the hell is Peter Plate? And who the hell is he? His editor, Dan Simon, calls him a “proletarian novelist,” but that doesn’t seem right. The author of ten novels, all of them set in the Mission Distr…

Photograph Source: Seven Stories Press – Link

Where the hell is Peter Plate? And who the hell is he? His editor, Dan Simon, calls him a “proletarian novelist,” but that doesn’t seem right. The author of ten novels, all of them set in the Mission District in San Francisco and all of them published by Seven Stories Press in New York, Plate was once a visible figure in the San Francisco literary scene. But years ago, he vanished into what his former agent, Elise Capron, calls “the aether.” She adds, “If that’s what he wants, it’s fine with me.  I lost track of him about ten years ago.”

Dan Simon at Seven Stories calls Plate a “proletarian novelist,” but that doesn’t seem right. Plate doesn’t write about proletarians. You might call him a novelist of the criminal classes and a neo-Marxist author. Noir is his chosen field.

In Theories of Surplus Value Marx wrote that “a criminal produces crimes, also criminal law, the police and criminal justice, penal code art, belles-lettres, novels.” Marx added “the criminal breaks the monotony of bourgeois life.” Plate would echo that perspective. His criminals produce nearly all of society as he sees it.

He breaks the monotony of bourgeois San Francisco by making the “gutter look like paradise” and by turning poverty into poetry and crime into the sublime. Along the way, he wears the fedora of a romantic.

Capron, his former agent, remembers having dinner with Plate at the home of the Chinese-American best-selling author, Amy Tan who once took him under her wing. Even Plate’s publicist, Eva Sotomayor, at Seven Stories, knows little if anything about him. “I have never met Plate,” she wrote in an email. “All I do know is that he’s based in the San Francisco area and is a bit of a recluse. I believe he doesn’t have a phone or a computer and doesn’t grant many interviews.” In fact, he doesn’t grant any interviews at all.

Plate might have been famous. He might have been the talk of the town, but he turned his back on fame, withdrew from nearly all social life and is holed up in an apartment in San Francisco battling bad health and also writing his eleventh novel, as yet untitled. His editor, publisher and friend, Dan Simon, at Seven Stories doesn’t rendezvous with Plate in person. “Our director of operations, Jon Gilbert, who is based in Oakland, meets with Peter in public spaces that are anonymous,” Simon tells me. “So there’s a lot of intimacy and trust, but yes at the same time everything is essentially done in secret.”

For a time, Plate was not only famous but also infamous. In 1978, he went wild in the streets of San Francisco during the “White Night” riots that followed the dual assassinations of San Francisco’s Mayor George Moscone and gay supervisor Harvey Milk— and the light sentence ( seven years) for the shooter, supervisor Dan White.

That memorable night, at least a dozen police cars were destroyed and eight non-police vehicles were torched. Plate, one of the most visible of protesters, was arrested, charged with “assault and battery on a police officer and burning police cars.” A flyer from that era, now a collector’s item, bears the headline, “Police vs. Plate.” That seems to be the way he views the world; himself versus the cops.

With the help of criminal defense lawyer Doron Weinberg, Plate “beat the rap,” as one of his fictional characters would say. The website, Good Reader, calls him, “Perhaps the most important anarchist prose writer around today.” True, if one associates anarchists with acts of violence.

Meanwhile, in his absence, a cottage industry has sprung up online to keep his memory and his work alive. “Kinky Kevin Federline,” as he calls himself, wrote, “Plate is one of my favorite authors.” Another fan who identifies himself as “the Fake Bruce Forsyth” chimed in with “hasn’t Plate done well without a computer!”

Dana Smith, a successful San Francisco graphic artist, remembered that Plate, an ex-boyfriend, wrote years ago with a pencil. “When I lived with Plate in the ‘80s I bought him an electric typewriter,” she wrote online. “He refused the contraption and it was returned to the store. I think he eventually tackled the typewriter. I say this with love, respect and fond memories.”

Yet another fan wrote online, “He seems to see it [the internet] as a vehicle for police surveillance.” He added, “he isn’t easy to locate and right now doesn’t even have a Wikipedia entry.” A man named Dave Kelso-Mitchell accused Plate of “elitism” and “snobbery.”

A longtime friend of Plate’s, a retired public school teacher and a union organizer, who wants only to be known as “KT,” suggests that Plate might be paranoid and rightfully so. Even paranoids have enemies. In Night of the Short Eyes, his most recent book, which boasts autobiographical elements, the narrator says, “I saw fear in my own eyes. Fear of the cops. Fear of getting snitched out. Fear of cracking up. A fear that burned brightest when I was by myself.”  Now that he’s living by himself and rarely ventures outside his apartment, that fear burns brighter than ever before, according to KT.

A San Francisco private investigator, who first learned the art of detection 40 years ago by serving an apprenticeship with super sleuth, Hal Lipset, and by studying Hammett’s novels— who wished to remain, anonymous— told me, “I would help you find Plate, but I’ve just been hired by a man with big bucks to learn if his mother is dead or alive. You’d think a man would know if his own mother was dead or alive.” He added, “Looking for someone can be challenging, and then bam? All of a sudden they reach out to you.”

Before his disappearing act, Plate often appeared in the pages of The San Francisco Chronicle. In 2001, while still riding the fame train, he wrote an op-ed piece titled, “A noir author reflects on the Mission [District] as a center of public literary life.” In the photo that accompanies the story, Plate poses in front of the apartment building where Dashiell Hammett, the father of noir, wrote The Maltese Falcon.

In 2004, he described, in another piece for The Chronicle, his Odyssey on foot across San Francisco: from the Ferry Building to the Castro. “The dialectic of Market Street is in the homeless with their shopping carts and the yuppies in their black leather jackets,” Plate wrote. He added, “At the Powell Street cable car turnaround, pickpockets, pizza delivery men, nickel-bag dealers, jugglers, mimes, saxophonists, homeboys, exhausted tourists and office workers mingle.”

In 2006, in Soon the Rest Will Fall, a prophetic novel which traces the fictional decline and near-total collapse of San Francisco, he wrote, “The police doubled their patrols. Christmas shoplifters were pilfering. Holiday customers had been jacked at gunpoint in the underground parking garages.”

 In 2008, in his last piece for The Chronicle, “S.F. Is Crime Central —On the Printed Page,” Plate observed that San Francisco is “a time bomb of poverty and wealth. The perfect canvas for the new noir. For every skyscraper, there’s a tenement. For each yuppie, there’s a wino on Market Street. The contradictions are brutal. You have to write about them.”

After 2008, he continued to write about the contradictions of San Francisco, as he sees them, and he has turned himself into a kind of contradiction: the preeminent bard of the San Francisco barrio, and at the same time the city’s most furtive author. If cities get the writers they deserve and writers get the cities they need, then perhaps San Francisco and Plate form a near-perfect couple.

In his absence, his novels speak volumes for him and about him. They also read like today’s deadline news.  In Night of the Short Eyes, his most recent publication, California is on fire, people are testing positive for the virus, patrols of SWAT teams roam the streets.

At 153 pages, with short chapters, and wide margins, Night can be enjoyed in a brief sitting. Plate’s narrator— a bookish sixteen-year-old and the descendant of Russian Jews—says of himself and his friends, “we were on the run from everyone in the world.” That’s pure Plate. Two of the characters have comic book names: Superman and The Lone Ranger; an alcoholic woman is “Frankenstein.” Yet another character, a bomb maker, is “Putin.”

Angels of Catastrophe—the title is reminiscent of Jack Kerouac’s title for his big Beat novel, Desolation Angels— might be Plate’s best work of fiction. It begins with pizzazz—“A policeman was gunned down by an unknown shooter,” and it also ends with pizzazz. The main character, Ricky Durrutti, Plate writes, “stayed awake through the night and listened to a police car’s siren have a nervous breakdown on Mission Street.”

Earlier in the story, he observes that Durrutti “was at that strangest of all crossroads, having lived long enough to make a lot of mistakes, but not long enough to fix any of them.” That too sounds like pure Plate, who might be compared to J. D. Salinger, the author of The Catcher in the Rye,and the most reclusive of all the major male writers (Norman Mailer, James Jones, William Styron, and James Baldwin) who emerged in the aftermath of World War II.

Salinger published his own work in The New Yorker and became a best selling writer who decided, decades after Catcher appeared in print, that “publishing is a terrible invasion of my privacy.” He stopped publishing and backed away from fame and publicity, though he didn’t hide his whereabouts. In New Hampshire, he paid workmen to build a high fence to protect his privacy. In a way Plate has built a wall around himself.

In an unpublished interview with me which was conducted nearly 20 years ago he wisely observed, “What people are not saying is as important as what they are saying.”  What was Plate not saying? Read between the lines of his novels and in the margins and one can get a pretty good idea. In a way, he’s not private at all, but rather hiding in plain sight. As an author with integrity and with a unique moral compass, he deserves to be read by fans of noir, Dashiell Hammett and those who belong to the precariat.

This content originally appeared on and was authored by Jonah Raskin.

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