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The Heterosexual Underbelly of the City by the Bay : DREAMING by Herbert Gold (Donald I. Fine: $17.95; 280 pp.)

April 17, 1988|Daniel Curzon | Curzon's play, "My Unknown Son," opens off-Broadway at the Kaufman Theater on Oct. 4. and

San Francisco is as much a character in Herbert Gold's new novel, "Dreaming," as any of the other characters. However, it's not the San Francisco of those little cable cars that climb halfway to the stars; it's the San Francisco of financial hustler Hutch Montberg, a "greedy dreamer" in trouble with loan sharks who wouldn't mind seeing him turn into Rice-a-Roni under their little cable car if he doesn't come up with the money he owes them.

This is the noir San Francisco of bachelor Hutch, heterosexual picker-upper of tired blondes, all-around health nut, heavy-duty runner and liver of the good life. For Hutch, it is "important to take care of both the body and the soul, the arteries and the meaning of life."

On the other side is his brother Dan, the family man complete with teen-age-daughter problems, an unfinished novel, and a wife who may leave him if he co-signs for his overextended brother, whom he loves like, well, like a brother.

Hutch is likewise a brother-lover. Indeed he loves Dan back so much he doesn't mind getting him into trouble with the loan sharks when Hutch can't pay off his debt. In author Gold's world, family passions are intense. Nobody just endures relatives. It's all blood, blood, blood. Very ethnic.

Gold seems bent on showing San Francisco's non-glamorous side. His villain is a Sydney Greenstreet heavy with a mean streak that would chill the air faster than any morning fog you can think of. His hero is no California airhead, into peace and love with flowers in his hair, but he stands by his beloved niece when she has a crisis with her punk-rock lover. Overall, though, he is not a very nice guy, a difficult literary type to bring off. Except for the Northern California sunshine and the open-door cafe of Enrico's, the reader might think himself in New York's garment industry with some sleazeball "entrepreneur," a sleazeball who jogs and then gorges on doughnuts.

There are some scenes in this novel with a slimy Russian who is trying to capitalize on the San Francisco life style, but this character is not integral to the plot. There are also some scenes with the Lunch Bunch that give a flavor of the Algonquin Roundtable--West Coast, present-day version. These men have woman trouble and watch the romantic and financial antics of the main character with envy and skepticism. The novel could use even more of these gentlemen who lunch, possibly as a frame for the entire work.

Gold is a serious novelist interested in describing people the way he sees them. As a consequence, "Dreaming" is likely to annoy feminists, liberals, and others who don't want to know about the underbelly of heterosexual San Francisco. The snipes at Chinese characters won't win any friends among the Chinese either, and they must be understood in the context of San Francisco's Chinatown, which is expanding into the North Beach area, replacing the bohemian life of the coffeehouses and the world they have encompassed for a long time.

"Dreaming" has a good story to tell about two brothers, but it takes until a third of the way through the novel before the story really clicks in. Some readers may not be patient enough to wait that long. Those who are will be rewarded with a book that moves through its unsentimental world at a good pace, examining some interesting '80s people with some rather large warts. Indeed, this book is certainly not for the tourist crowd that wants to hear about the Gettys, the Golden Gate Bridge, the painted ladies, or the love that waits there in San Francisco.

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