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Winners By Eric B. Martin

San Francisco's Two Nations

Reading Winners by Eric B. Martin, I was reminded of the "two nations" speech vice presidential candidate John Edwards used to truck out during campaign stops. Edwards maintained that the country is losing its middle class and polarizing into two nations (you could say "under God" depending on your red or blue state tidings). In Martin's book, the two nations sit under the seven by seven square foot umbrella of San Francisco circa 1999. It was a time when Elvis Costello playing at the company Christmas party was de rigueur while the south and southeast sectors of the city buckled under gentrification. If you remember when Web Van patrolled the streets more often than the SFPD, you know of what I speak.

Our hero, Shane McCarthy, is a second generation Irish American, schooled at UC Berkeley but a chimney sweep by trade. Shane is pure 20th century industrial, like the Potrero Hill neighborhood he frequents for work. His wife Lou works for an Internet start-up and tries to shield her husband from the fact that she enjoys her work terribly.

College sweethearts, the two struggle to ignore the world that is making them change. Shane has to pretend to enjoy his wife's company parties and Lou has to pretend that she is only working for the money to keep them flush. It is at these company parties that Martin's comic strokes are at their most deft. They are scenes Edith Wharton would have described during her time in upper crust 19th century Manhattan. During one scene, a CEO giant tells Shane that everyone is finding his or her own "personal chimney". The time for communal chimney sweeps is over and everyone is looking for the opportunity to work someone.

Shane doesn't like being worked. He likes to work out and pick-up basketball is his game. When one of his b-ball buddies goes MIA, Shane investigates the boy's disappearance which takes him to places in the City that dot-commers think don't exist because there isn't a wine bar to anchor the neighborhood. The investigation is the spine on which Shane can illustrate these "two nations" most aptly.

This is Martin's second novel. His style is straight forward and clean but his sentences often follow a recognizable pattern of adjective-adjective-noun, The fourth line of the book, "small naked body" is only the first in a long line of "shiny red sweatshirts", "loud fuzzy tenors", and "big red booths". The notes in his rhythm could be endearing if the modifiers were interesting, but most of the time they just smack of laziness.

If you can get past these occasional moments of sentence bloat,Winners is an enjoyable read. If you lived in San Francisco during that time, you will shake your head in recognition. If you didn't live here during that time, you will be grateful that you missed the era of the gilt prison.

Winners by Eric B. Martin
MacAdam/Cage
Hardcover/ $23
ISBN: 1-931561-92-3
350 pages