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Book Review

Raffish Characters Propel San Francisco Tale

DAUGHTER MINE, by Herbert Gold, Thomas Dunne/St. Martin's Press, $23.95, 304 pages


Dan Shaper, the protagonist of Herbert Gold's latest San Francisco novel, seems aptly named. His life may not have taken the shape he once wanted, but he's in control of its current contours. A bachelor in his 60s, Shaper translates in court for Spanish-speaking suspects and witnesses. He has friends and routines, a rent-controlled apartment, favorite ethnic restaurants. His only concern is mortality.

"In due course," Gold writes in a chatty omniscience that doubles as Shaper's internal voice, "he would be one of those who wore the bus pass on a shoelace around the neck. In due course his life might be lucky enough to be taken by a sudden sharp twinge on the Polk-19 and then nothing, nothing. . . ."

Instead, the phone rings, and a young woman's voice says, "Mr. Shaper, this is your daughter. My name is Amanda."

"I don't have a daughter," Shaper tells her.

"Yes you do. Margaret Torres is my mother."

Shaper scratches his graying head. Only tardily does he recall "a film shown at the Mexican Consulate nearly 20 years ago, during the days when certain adventures came more easily. . . . Margaret Torres said she was a painter. She liked it when he said she had the right eyebrows, powerful like those of Frida Kahlo. . . . He never saw her again--oh, right, one more time--but sent her a check when she telephoned to say she needed an abortion.

"A San Francisco kind of guy, all heart: didn't try to make sure he was the responsible party, sometimes called 'the father.' " And that's what Shaper discovers himself to be at this late date: a father, a dad, a responsible party. Margaret, it seems, wanted a daughter but not a husband, and even now she simmers with Wiccan distrust of "the patriarchy." She didn't want Amanda to contact him, but Amanda, at 19, lets nobody boss her around, except maybe D'Wayne, a big, strong African American who is her boyfriend and maybe her pimp.

It's all very confusing to Shaper. Amanda, who is working as a "therapist" at a brothel disguised as a medical clinic, wants money but won't say how she'll use it. Gyro Brown, the pseudo-gypsy who runs the brothel, is willing to pimp his own nubile daughter, Shari, to Shaper in return for help greasing palms at City Hall. Margaret, now that Shaper is a fact in her daughter's life, says it's his fatherly duty to get rid of D'Wayne, even to kill him. Shaper's pals on the police force are willing to help, as is Ferd Conant, a shady lawyer.

Gold ("Fathers," "A Girl of Forty," "Lovers and Cohorts") renders all these people with enormous gusto; they're so charming and raffish that we forget for a long time that very little is actually happening in "Daughter Mine." The action is in Shaper's head. Soon he begins to love this stranger, Amanda, like the daughter she is, despite her sarcastic mouth. He realizes that it's better to take on the troubles she represents than to sleepwalk through the rest of his life. But does this mean he has to go along with Gyro's schemes or give way to his own murderous impulses toward D'Wayne (who may not be quite the bad guy he seems)?

Translation is called for. Shaper needs to jettison much of his life and make the rest of it, the important stuff, fit a new context, like the meanings he ferries back and forth between English and Spanish. In telling such a story, tone is everything, and Gold--who has made a career of reporting on the Northern California lifestyle, satirizing it and celebrating it, counting its moral costs without moralizing, almost purely through modulations in tone--is the man for the job.

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