Alvin Orloff's 'Vulgarian Rhapsody'

  • by Jim Piechota
  • Tuesday October 10, 2023
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Author Alvin Orloff
Author Alvin Orloff

As the proprietor of Castro Street's literary emporium Fabulosa Books, author Alvin Orloff knows good books. And he's written one, too, with his fourth novel about a group of queer San Francisco residents who feel the pinch of the dot-com boom in the late 1990s.

At center stage of "Vulgarian Rhapsody" is Harris McNulty, an aging, "ordinary" queer San Franciscan who loves shoes and gay bars, adopts a retro "white trash" fashion aesthetic, and whose face "displays a timelessly haggard quality." Readers who consider this description a bit on the bitchy side of crass need only consider the narrator: an unnamed, judgmental storyteller to whom Harris has owed $92 for many years.

Yes, narrating all the action is an omniscient voice embodying the kind of biting, humorously sarcastic personality every reader has either befriended or steadily avoided like the plague in social circles. But, in the context of Orloff's entertaining novel, their presence is an uproarious treat as they guide the story of Harris and his trans roommate Maxine through the ups and downs of urban life by the Bay.

It's 1999 and for readers who were in San Francisco back then, the era was a unique time of good and bad transition. The internet and cell phones were living their best lives, venture capital firms were swimming in profits, and the term "start-up" was foaming from every enthusiastic, overconfident entrepreneur's lips.

However, for folks already enjoying life in the big urban sprawls, it also meant gentrification, skyrocketing rents, tech worker infiltrations, bloating cost-of-living expenses, and a crushing recession that would bankrupt business upon business.

Harris and Maxine are gloomily feeling the weight of the times, but, for now, they are shakily surfing the great wave of survival. Maxine's career as a musician barely surviving in a Tenderloin apartment has seen better days as her age group (she's "pushing fifty") struggles to keep their bohemian artist scene relevant and their livelihood self-sufficient and above-water.

Bemoaning the "computer savvy youngsters" flooding the city, Harris, disillusioned with his job at a market research firm, scours the city exploring cheaper housing options. He contemplates moving in with his friend Wally, or with Maxine, or with several other friends who begin to carefully weigh the possible (disastrous) consequences of having someone like Harris permanently share their spaces.

He's a social character who parties, then after-parties with friends like Sasa and a group of other dynamic folks during a particularly energetic house party scene where Orloff's talents for one-liners and colorful dialogue exchanges are at the height of their powers.

Before it's thought that Orloff's novel is all fluff and no substance, there are moments of seriousness which arrive courtesy of Maxine. In addition to being a true star on the stage, she adds nuances of sobering humility to all the flamboyant exploits.

Her layered perspective on the grim reality of AIDS in the 1990s is memorable as she somberly remarks how the disease decimated a particular theater troupe (and artistic community at large) she knew as "funeral after funeral devastated the group and its audience. Those who didn't succumb to the virus fled for the hills, hunkered down in their apartments, or traded entertainment for activism."

Locals will revel at frequent mentions of former (and current) queer haunts like Muddy Waters coffeeshop, Café Flore, Amoeba Records, the Eagle, and A Different Light Bookstore, to name just a few. They are all joyously embedded within this fun, frothy tour of a bygone time and place where San Franciscans were at the mercy of free-flowing greed and a tech tidal wave that moved all of us online whether we liked it or not.

The launch party for Alvin Orloff's 'Vulgarian Rhapsody' will be on Thursday, October 19, 7pm at Fabulosa Books, 489 Castro St., with guests Brontez Purnell, Jennifer Blowdryer and Birdie Bob Watt.

'Vulgarian Rhapsody' by Alvin Orloff; Three Rooms Press, $16.

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