angels of catastrophe

by Peter Plate

(Seven Stories Press, 218 pages, $13)

I always flinch when I read a publicist's letter comparing a precious author to a Frankenstein hash of literary giants. So I suffered spasms when Peter Plate's newest novel arrived with PR likening him to a young Charles Bukowski or Jim Carroll. Needless to say, these are tough acts to follow, and Plate's amateur prose never comes close to stealing their limelight.

Set in San Francisco's Mission District, Angels of Catastrophe is the fourth in a quartet of books revealing the apocalyptic squalor of that section of Sodom-on-Sea. The plot concerns a small-time, limping criminal named Ricky Durrutti, who is implicated in the murder of a cop. Durruti has to figure out the real killer in order to clear his name, and so sleuths his way through a grim clot of humanity in hope of finding his man.

Plate lines up the trannies, hookers, junkies, ethnic gangsters and corrupt cops like a kid playing carnival with paper dolls, and his attempts at character development never get beyond endless physical descriptions (I've never read so many mentions of abscesses, pustules and acne). One-liner truisms fished out of a crack addict's pipe serve as narrative commentary, and every once in a while Plate throws in a bizarre, nearly unrelated retrospective moment that never connects back with the main plot. There are some highlights: the freaked-out hallucination sequences, when Durrutti smokes angel dust, and the queer dynamics between his transsexual neighbors Arlo and Jackie.

To its credit, Plate's book is easily plowed through and is sporadically entertaining--not unlike the righteous voyeurism of watching Cops, so you can feel relieved when you switch off the set. Bronwyn Nettles

erotic anger: a user's manualby Gérard Pommier,
translated by Catherine Liu
(University of Minnesota Press, 203 pages, $18.95)

Just because it's called "a user's manual" doesn't mean this book contains any information about finding your lady's "freak switch" or learning new techniques in BDSM. Erotic Anger is hardcore Lacanian psychotherapeutic theory, but Gérard Pommier's writing lacks the light, playful touch of Jacques Lacan's style, so that even Pommier's most salacious case histories have all the titillating power of cold gruel.

However, you may find occasional excitement in violently disagreeing with M. Pommier's theory of phallic primacy (the symbolic death and rebirth of the Father with each and every orgasm and the idea that humans created a monotheistic God so that they would have someone to whom they could safely direct their guilt). You might also find a head-shaking enjoyment of the case histories. Pommier's patients, by and large, are rich, brittle and neurotic, as most analysis patients have been since year zero, and they continue to appear laughably clueless in their struggles with frigidity and masturbation. The erudite reader might be amused by Pommier's frequent digressions into the realms of "pure philosophy," and the same text that appears pointless and ill-informed to the lay reader will instead be an illuminated display of deadpan humor.

This work will make an excellent textbook for the counseling graduate-school course, "Why Can't Freudian Complexes Just Die Already?" But for the faintly contemporary situations described, the book might as well have been written in the 1940s. Pommier does point out his patients' individual complexes, and the transgressions that built them, but he concludes that you must discover your own. If you ever wanted to kill your dad, you're already halfway there with this book. Jemiah Jefferson

david's story
by Zoe Wicomb
(Feminist Press, 224 pages, $19.95)

David is a ranking African National Congress operative dealing with the radical changes that enveloped South Africa in 1991. He answers the upheaval with an inquiry into his heritage, a taboo activity for a "Coloured" guerrilla who will most likely find enemies in the branches of his family tree. The premise is interesting, but genetic histories, even one's own, are usually quite complicated affairs. Zoe Wicomb does little to help us through David's fictional one.

All South African books are place-specific, intentionally or not. Wicomb's novel, however, is place-exclusive, nearly impenetrable to a North American unfamiliar with the Cape's history. Then there's the work's structure. New characters flicker on without introduction and are treated as if the reader should know them. Poetry springs up but is soon swallowed by the general discontinuity of the text.

Despite it being "David's story," the character really serves as a springboard for Wicomb's full dissections of a Coloured person's identity, womanhood in South Africa, and how the political is translated into the personal, the past into the present. But these dissections are never stitched back together.

There is a point, though, and Wicomb finally makes it on page 201: "Who could keep going in a straight line with so many stories, like feral siblings, separated and each running wild, chasing each other's tales?" This is a complete cop-out, yet David's Story does ask pertinent questions about "History." Is it about memory or evidence? Is it about the teller or the told? Who gets to claim it? But Wicomb is as lost as her readers in this maze without a center. Kirsten Flagg