Playing With History

A fictional account of a real event leaves us choking on our cream puffs

Having been invited to high tea and cocktails at the Palace Hotel this month by Chronicle Books, which was hosting a party to launch James Dalessandro's new book 1906, I was suffused with that sense -- is it guilty luck or lucky guilt? -- that comes from doing fancy things you don't have to pay for. I was suffused, too, with the knowledge, throbbing like a new sore, that it's uncool to get excited about such things. But complimentary petits fours, the earthquake: What's not to like?

The Palace, after all, was where opera superstar Enrico Caruso was staying when the earthquake jolted him out of bed in the wee hours of April 18, 1906. Gutted in the fire, the place was rebuilt at huge expense.

It wasn't until I was halfway to the hotel on BART that I noticed, in tiny white letters on my invitation, under the monolithic numerals 1906 against a grainy photograph of flames and desolation, those two words I have come to dread:

A NOVEL.

Who knew? Well, obviously, everybody knew. The author knew. Chronicle Books knew. I'd just been lazy, as usual, and assumed that a new book about the San Francisco quake and fire, especially given such a bloodless title, must be nonfiction. Besides which, Chronicle doesn't do much fiction. It usually does lavish, exquisitely packaged nonfiction. And it's not that I hate novels just for being novels, in some knee-jerk way. Novels can be good. Gidget started out as a novel, and it was good. The trouble -- my trouble -- is novels in which flesh-and-blood historical figures who have lived and died are transmuted into fictional characters whom the novelist yanks about as if they were Barbie and Ken dolls, forcing them into half-authentic, half-concocted scenes with purely fictional characters while speaking made-up dialogue.

It's one thing to make up dialogue for made-up characters. Making up dialogue for real people who really lived and never said these things is something else entirely. It's called lying. It's called fucking about with history. And it will produce generations of readers unable to discern fact from fiction, truth from whatever the hell, and not caring -- just as kids watching Bud Light and Hyundai commercials fail to realize that "Blitzkrieg Bop" and "In My Room" were once actual songs.

But it really sells. So OK.

The hotel's Garden Court breathes vintage decadence, with marble columns rising gold and creamy-white to a mostly glass roof supporting dangling chandeliers. Pale tablecloths and matching napkins and tea-ware lie in soft counterpoint to the brightness of smoked-salmon finger sandwiches, raspberry tarts, the pointed tips of huge strawberries emerging from thick chocolate coats. The tables with their plush blue-and-gold-striped chairs are filling, slowly, with media and city officials. But too slowly. A man has committed suicide this afternoon by leaping from an overpass onto Interstate 280. Traffic is jammed to a standstill, marooning the TV crews that, en route to this book launch, now can't come.

The fire chief is here in crisp dark uniform and blond ponytail. Also here is former Police Chief Alex Fagan, who now heads the city's Office of Emergency Services. At a podium, author James Dalessandro -- whose previous works include the 1993 cop/opera thriller Bohemian Heart-- reminds us that for three solid days the post-quake flames raged, devouring 87 percent of the city's buildings. Dalessandro says the city was caught completely unprepared, that its spooked cops shot anyone who even looked like a looter, and that the official number of reported dead -- about 500 -- represents about one-tenth of the truth.

He explains that his novel's cast of characters includes genuine flesh-and-blood figures who really were here during the earthquake (Caruso, for one, and the voracious Chinatown madam Ah Toy), completely invented figures (like the feisty but imaginary young female reporter Annalisa Passarelli, the tale's narrator), and still other flesh-and-blood figures who were here but not during the earthquake (boardinghouse owner and notorious kidnapper Shanghai Kelly, who was long dead by 1906 but whom Dalessandro reanimates to suit his own purposes) -- and he justifies this mixture by declaring himself "astonished by the ability of fiction to connect facts." After all, he notes, Harriet Beecher Stowe revealed in Uncle Tom's Cabin shocking truths about slavery, shredding the South's standard slaves-are-happy bombast.

With Uncle Tom's Cabin, Dalessandro says, "a novelist changed history and ultimately triggered the Civil War. It is one of the grandest goals of fiction to have an effect" on the bigger picture, on the future: in his case, on our ability to handle the next major disaster. Immersing ourselves in the rush and romance of his impassioned version of the saga -- in which gamblers, lovers, dreamers, sojourners, statesmen, crooks, clergy, cops, and teenage Chinese sex slaves crawl with varying success through the wreckage (though readers who care deeply about spelling must contend with characters "peddling" bicycles along streets, and such) -- we will, the author hopes, learn the value of vigilance and volunteering. A portion of the book's profits will be donated to the city's emergency services.

"Will it be as bad next time?" Dalessandro asks an audience that, as it nibbles cream puffs, is pondering not only fault lines, but also explosions and anthrax. He answers himself sepulchrally: "No. It will be worse."

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