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Secrets that live in the Sunset

A San Francisco district, post-WWII, sets the tone for Andrew Sean Greer's 'The Story of a Marriage.'

May 11, 2008|Lynell George | Times Staff Writer

SAN FRANCISCO — You COULD say that Andrew Sean Greer is back at it again, cleverly telling tales with his elegant sleight-of-hand. His last novel, "The Confessions of Max Tivoli," set in early 20th century San Francisco, chronicled the adventures of said Max, who at birth resembles an old man but with each passing year grows younger in appearance, upending life-cycle assumptions and limitations.

Greer's new novel, "The Story of a Marriage," doesn't turn on a series of fantastic, suspension-of-belief plot points, but the unadorned title belies the startling narrative land mines Greer has seeded within the novel.

Set in San Francisco's fog-bound, beachside Sunset District in the early 1950s, the novel chronicles the marriage of Holland and Pearlie Cook. It's told in the voice of Pearlie, a woman who has been living her life as if playing piano with her foot on the damper pedal. Despite her intelligence, sensitivity, even her accomplishments (she's well read, served as a WAVE, navigated herself out of the rural South), she is unsure of herself, of her very instincts. She doesn't see herself the way the world sees her. Instead of beautiful and persevering, she sees plain and weak. Pearlie has built her world around protecting the men in her life, Holland and their child, Sonny -- nurturing and shielding them both; her husband from his supposedly "transposed heart," her son from the effects of polio. The picture cracks upon the arrival of a stranger, Buzz Drumer, who materializes out of the mists of the past, with a $100,000 offer: "He came to my house like a wave at high tide and ruined the little castle that I had built."

Not quite 200 pages, the novel nonetheless has grand, sweeping ambitions, taking on war, race, sexual orientation, patriotism, the shifting notion of what it is to be an American. Holland's past and Pearlie's future are backdropped by a country still set off-balance by the atmosphere of war -- still haunted by World War II, now buffeted by one in Korea. But it is the book's surprise turns that create the biggest temblors -- not just in the lives on the page but also within the reader's minds. Neither Pearlie nor Holland, it turns out, is exactly who we at first think she or he is.

"It's been interesting, some of the reaction from friends who read it early," said Greer, 37, on a recent ride to the Outer Sunset to retrace his fact-finding steps through Pearlie and Holland's neighborhood. "Some have said to me when they hit the first revelations that it makes them wonder about their own assumptions."

The book's secrets are the true heart of the matter -- like the secrets we keep in life in order, we think, to better manage it. They're so important that in the advanced reader's copy, Greer's editor, Frances Coady, included a note that is a "plea" not to "reveal its secrets to those readers coming after you."

Four years in the making, this book was delayed by the success of "Max Tivoli," which became a national bestseller and a "Today" show book club choice. While promoting it, Greer didn't carve out time to write. "So I got kind of lost," he said. Immersion -- several writers' colonies (MacDowell, Yaddo among them) and a new "no excuses" writing schedule -- got him back on track. (As he prepares to tour on this book, he's keeping to a strict schedule. "I had to get a little place to write because my boyfriend works at home and is on the phone constantly. It makes it difficult to concentrate.")

Immersing himself in 1950s San Francisco, particularly the Sunset, was a little more complicated, Greer explained. Except for vintage landmarks -- the zoo, the ocean, the old Play Land with its penny attractions and the "Limbo" ride -- "the Sunset is a bland district," he said. "It was a real handicap for me, in a way, because [Pearlie] couldn't run into a lot of exciting things."

But the Sunset then became an almost physical presence haunting the book. "I had the ocean. I had chiming trolleys. I had fog. And I thought, 'I have enough.' "

Just off Noriega Street, Greer found a wedge of a parking space on one of the adjacent avenues lined with row after row of typical-to-the neighborhood structures: boxlike houses, standing snugly side by side like good soldiers. "Now, where would Pearlie and Holland have lived?" Greer muttered. While some homes have been done up in recent years to look more distinctive -- turned into postmodern Victorians with busy rickrack or fronted with New Orleans-style iron lace -- the structures that most caught Greer's eye were those that looked like Easter eggs: the pastel pinks, greens, yellows nested together.

Greer's novel almost required the mood of this quiet, relatively nondescript San Francisco neighborhood -- the fog and drifting sand, the disconnectedness. The Sunset, Greer pointed out, "was a part of the city no one really built on until the war was over. Then, the hills were flattened, soil was laid down over the sand. . . . It felt outside of everything." And it was.

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