If David Littlejohn’s fiction is correct, the San Francisco Opera House’s recent $90 million seismic reconstruction will not have done much good.
In Littlejohn’s new novel, “The Big One: A Story of San Francisco,” the characters converge at a performance of “Don Giovanni” in the War Memorial, as noise “suddenly engulfed them ... like that of a hundred high ocean waves breaking at once.”
In the big quake, “the house was visibly swaying and jerking, shedding chunks of itself onto the audience, its steelwork crying out under the strain.”
The author, a UC Berkeley professor emeritus and SanFrancisco-born descendant of Gold Rush pioneers, doesn’t use the catastrophe to titillate or exploit the apprehension lurking in the back of many minds in The City.
The series of quakes leading up to the “big one” serve as background and symbolism in the lives of nine San Franciscans thrown together by the calamity.
As the collapse of a Peruvian suspension bridge in Thornton Wilder’s “The Bridge of San Luis Rey” revealed unknown or unrealized truths for the book’s characters, the same happens for the people in “The Big One” as the ground convulses under them.
Littlejohn’s varied characters include a troubled captain of the San Francisco building industry, about to be hoisted on the petard of profitable — if illegal — business deals; a mother-daughter duo struggling in the new low-cost housing project, the “Willie Brown Town”; a (moderately) reform-minded mayor; a mismatched, but tenacious gay couple; and a strange artist slipping in and out of paranoia and prospicience.
For San Franciscans past and present, minute descriptions of settings (not street by street, but block by block, building by building) may make especially interesting reading. For others, the detailed physical inventories may be too much. It would take less time to drive from the Marina to City Hall than to read about it.
But when it comes to characters and situations, Littlejohn’s attention to detail is welcome, making this book a proverbial good read.
By David Littlejohn
Publisher: Eloquent Books