It's the fall of 1979 in San Francisco's Tenderloin, a dangerous place filled with streets where "people rushed past each other, as if under shellfire." But in feminist novelist and critic Valerie Miner's eyes, urban combat involves a good deal more than dodging muggers and winos. In fact, in this new piece of fiction she stretches the concept to encompass everything from the impassioned (and possibly murderous) public rivalries of a heated election to the deeply private struggles that test and define the roots of friendship.
At the heart of Miner's story are two elderly women, both of whom live and work in the district. Chrissie, a Scottish waitress who despite her many years in America still speaks in a "tart brogue," is the political activist of the duo, while Margaret, a New York-born shop clerk, is the model of ladylike apolitical decorum. Chrissie has "an opinion--a strong opinion, even--on issues Margaret didn't even know were issues," while Margaret looks on everything "as something to be worked out between one individual and another."
Despite these differences, and despite the secrets they keep from one another, Margaret and Chrissie are fond companions. Although they live and work separately, they come together almost every day to bicker and laugh--and, not incidentally, to find the strength to hold out against poverty and old age. Until, that is, a bitterly contested election for the post of local district supervisor threatens the safety of their friendship.
Chrissie's candidate, a noble black woman, is running a feisty campaign against a slickster backed by various real-estate interests that would like to develop the neighborhood, evicting its ragtag community of immigrants, gays, and senior citizens in the process. Very quickly, the fight turns nasty, complete with firebombings and death threats and accusations of illegal slush funds.
Unfortunately, all this works much better at the personal level than it does at the political. Chrissie and Margaret are beautifully drawn characters, full of prickly yearnings and well-practiced defenses against the stacked deck of life. But the cast that surrounds them--including a witty gay florist, the Latino proprietor of a newspaper stand, and a Swedish waitress who moonlights as a hooker--provide more color than depth.
On the other hand, there's a subplot, involving Margaret's abortive romance with a Unitarian minister, that might well have sustained the novel all by itself. Especially since it moves us away from Miner's somewhat forced lectures on social ills and into the richly contradictory matter of why people like Chrissie escape from their feelings through endless good works--and why people like Margaret try desperately to avoid thinking they're part of "a world that contained more than two people at a time."
Here Miner's tough, spare prose turns wonderfully eloquent, summoning up the jealousy and fear, the self-delusions and the brave soul-searching, that make up Margaret and Chrissie's personal dialectic. Better yet, this is all accomplished without soppy sentimentality, with an integrity that celebrates a special kind of affection.