Having visited San Francisco and its infamous Tenderloin some years ago, this book caught my eye. That district has a distinctive air of desperation and damage, and I was delighted that Mr O’Neill has captured it. Perfectly.
This attractive little book from Apex Publications contains 8 exceptional tales all set in the Tenderloin in which we meet some interesting and broken people. My favourites included “Tombstones in his Eyes” in which an addict attempts to hoodwink a terrifying new dealer on the block. “Balance” features an obsessed Vietnam vet on a homicidal mission of restoring order to the world. In “Bushido”, a hideously scarred homeless man meets Samurai culture in a story of guilt and redemption. I’ll also mention “The Apotheosis of Nathan McKee”. Here, a middle-aged drunk discovers he has powers of invisibility in a tale with a rare light-hearted tone. But there isn’t a single weak link in this collection.
With such a niche theme, I feared it could become samey. On the contrary, while the flavour and atmosphere of the Tenderloin is present throughout, I actually yearned for more once the last story was concluded. The evocation is so strong, I could smell the trash, feel the drug-sweat against my skin, taste the Wild Irish Rose whiskey.
There are several recurring characters, such as the legless bum Short Stuff, and Sweet Jane: the prostitute on the beautiful cover. They provide a very human and reassuring familiarity to the deprivation, but it is the ‘loin itself that is the antihero of the book. A character in itself.
Even if urban, superntural horror is not to your taste, I would still recommend Taste of Tenderloin. It is written in a leisurely, uncluttered style that engages immediately whether the tales begin with a bang or a whisper. Gene O’Neill has presented us with a small but perfectly formed fictionalisation of one of the western world’s most fascinating city districts – or at least how it used to be – and the lost souls that populate it. Enjoy.