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Book Review

Ill-Fated Couples Play Out Passions Against Backdrop of '60s S.F.

March 15, 2001|BRET ISRAEL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SECRET LOVE

By Bart Schneider

Viking, 275 pages

*

From this distance, the early 1960s feel a little antique, a moral territory that could be a foreign country. The blossoming of the civil rights movement, the rise of student protests, and the first blooms of the sexual revolution give the period a lovely, righteous patina. How innocent, how pure these impulses seem! In the Age of Bush II, how long ago and far away they feel!

"Secret Love," Bart Schneider's second novel, takes us into the heart of this time. The story is set in 1964 San Francisco, so the glow of the period gains in charm by being set in the antic shadow of the Golden Gate, the epicenter of liberal good intentions and freedom-questing.

Famous names pop up and sprinkle the tale: dashing Mario Savio, in full throat in Sproul Plaza; Lenny Bruce cracking mordant witticisms; Cassius Clay embodying beauteous black power; the noble French writer Albert Camus; sad, wrecked Marilyn Monroe. The city is palpably molting, and darkly on the horizon looms the summer's Republican national convention at the Cow Palace, where right-wingers will crown Barry Goldwater.

There are also references to pop cultural signifiers (the title comes from the Doris Day song in the movie "Calamity Jane"), such as local lost boy Johnny Mathis and the wan powdered fruit drink Tang, bounty of the space program. Mostly, though, these iconic figures ripple on the edge of the narrative and feel third hand, wooden and tamed.

Schneider, author of the novel "Blue Bossa" about a jazz trumpeter, sets out to tell an interlocking story of two doomed, mixed-race couples, avatars of the liberationist times. The most fully formed figure, Jack Roseman, is a clever 40-something Jewish attorney, a passionate civil rights agitator and urban renewal antagonist. He is also a haunted widower, devoted dad and sensualist, a "shipwrecked rogue" who darts around town in Bermuda shorts. Roseman's secret lover is Nisa Boehm, daughter of a white socialite and a vanished black dad, an independent-minded actress and activist who lives a free life in a spare apartment in Chinatown, furnished with the leavings from the street--"an alien among aliens." Slowly, they begin to share Italian wine, intimate meals and a desire to change the world.

More than a year after the death of his musician wife Inez, Roseman begins to come back to life under the spell of Nisa, whom he's met at one of his civil rights protests. They have a free-spirited, satisfying life of passion, but their deepening affair is threatened by Jack's reluctance to let Nisa all the way into his life. He seems to fear that his large-heartedness might not be fully shared by his two young kids, let alone his seethingly angry, bigoted and senile father (a thoroughly unattractive character). Jack's struggle between public good intentions and private remorse and confusion is one of the book's best parts.

Interwoven with this love story is the even less formed passion of Peter, a dashingly handsome Jewish actor, who has shed his family name and is struggling to express his true sexual nature. Crossing the color line, he befriends the tortured son of a black minister after a shadowy dalliance along the fog-shrouded rocks of a gay trysting spot.

This young man, Simon Sims, is the most interesting character of the lot, a bookish janitor who has fallen away from his father's faith to test the austere, empowering dogma of the rising Nation of Islam. Simon has a mighty cross to bear, as a closeted gay Muslim. There are some sweet moments as Peter and Simon explore their sexuality, some painful ones as they are bashed at a civil rights march.

Issues between them come up, and they quarrel. "[Peter] wanted a nice little love affair in his apartment, but Simon had come to love the wild place. He didn't want to be cooped up in Peter's apartment with his art posters and his hi-fi. He couldn't love Peter inside these rooms. It was too stifling."

Perhaps too neatly, Sims, on the advice of his father, turns to Roseman for legal and personal counseling, and the two couples share a bohemian night at a North Beach cafe, before things come asunder. The denouement is sad, one tale ending in horror, the other in heartbreak.

Schneider is a good writer of lean prose, and he has a feeling for the savage undertow beneath '60s revelry, but his narrative has an underwhelming, schematic feeling. This matched pair of love stories among four tortured souls comes across for the most part as plodding and predictable. Short chapters make a single point; the characters feel thin and all too representative, never really growing or changing; the rush and whirl of the times rarely come alive on the page.

In the end, "Secret Love" only barely conjures up the glorious, pastel San Francisco spring preceding the gothic summer of love. But it was nice to think back in that direction. For the real thing--an elliptical, darting, ambivalent view of the city's decade, better to re-read Joan Didion's collection "The White Album."

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