Tales of the City

Katherine Seligman’s At the Edge of the Haight is a novel about San Francisco’s unhoused.

at the edge of the haight, katherine seligman
Penni Gladstone

Katherine Seligman wisely leans on her experience as a social justice journalist in her first novel, At the Edge of the Haight. Tracing the journey of an unhoused 20-year-old navigating San Francisco’s margins, the book is shaded with the knowing details one might expect from a writer who’s spent years reporting on homelessness and mental health in the Bay Area.

If only she’d leaned a little harder.

Seligman builds her narrative through the eyes of Los Angeles expatriate Maddy Donaldo, a homeless woman in and around Haight-Ashbury. Maddy views her life as an endless loop: every day, she and her friends are “waiting for things to get started.” This straightforward sentiment hints at a daily grind that is both mundane and unnervingly mysterious.

The most compelling aspects of At the Edge of the Haight involve navigating this mode of survival: the danger of living in the Panhandle, the cop-free zones in which to hustle tourists, the effort that goes into scoring food, the prisonlike routine of lining up at the shelter for a shower and a bed. Seligman excels at describing those elements, which shine a light on a community that, at least to the oblivious masses, appears merely another component of the Haight Street tourist experience—a reminder of an ancient hippie dream, now fried to a crisp.

The unhoused on the Haight are human wallpaper, their presence recalling both our romantic bohemian memories and the blessings of the road not taken. They trigger a (false) connection to the clichés and images that have become attached to Haight Street, a place where a burst of youthful idealism more than half a century ago gave way to what we see today—a cynical tourist trap forever caught up by a moment in time.

Seligman deserves credit for the passion she brings to the plight of the unhoused. At the Edge of the Haight, however, is a novel rather than a sociological treatise, so its demands are different. Her sturdy reportorial foundation buckles under the weight of a narrative that becomes increasingly crazy and trope-filled, like a cringey young adult book repurposed for adults. If you’re looking for the grit of Kids, think again. At the Edge of the Haight, instead, is like a badly plotted Afterschool Special episode. The dramatic arcs ring false, as though the author didn’t trust that her novel could be propelled by real talk.

Maddy seeks a sense of belonging, to matter to someone. But relationships with others are often just alliances. She left home as a means to wrest control of her life; the desire for uninhibited freedom yields, as it must, to a sense of hopelessness, the feeling of being caged by inertia and circumstance.

It could have been grist for an interesting character study. Instead, Seligman turns the story into a murder mystery, with a creepy grown-up stalker tossed in for good measure. Maddy comes upon the dying body of a fellow street youth named Shane—and his likely murderer, who threatens reprisal after they trade glances. Maddy’s anxiety rises as she attempts to dodge this killer, but she’s discovered by an even shadier character: the murdered boy’s father, Dave.

Unlike Maddy, Shane lived in a small town on the East Coast. But he, too, needed to escape. His father and mother turn up in San Francisco looking for clues to their son’s death. But, wouldn’t you know it, the grown-ups just don’t understand. Unable—or unwilling—to look inward, Shane’s parents can’t contemplate the real reasons for his actions. To them, Shane was a good boy who had everything going for him. Why would he give that up? Dave’s investigation, it becomes clear, is more about assuaging his own guilt than learning the truth about his son.

Then Dave and his wife, Myra, find Maddy. Maddy didn’t know Shane, but she saw him dying, which is good enough for Dave. He invites her to stay at their rented cabin, asks her to Thanksgiving dinner. Dave even gets high with Maddy and her friends, because of course he does. “I need to see his life so I can walk part of this with him,” Dave says, stoned.

Groovy, man.

Eventually, Dave and Myra visit Los Angeles to find Maddy’s parents—in order to understand her better, they say. Maddy is upset by this intrusion. But she also senses that Dave needs her, and for that she is willing to overlook the warning signs.

This may fit neatly into Seligman’s narrative, but it’s mightily implausible. After spending her life running from damaged adults, Maddy eventually embraces—wait for it—a pair of damaged adults who she believes care about her, which somehow triggers her own personal transformation.

At its core, At the Edge of the Haight’s message is that everything—life, personalities, communities, even novels—is a facade, a front. Nothing is what it appears to be. But in the end, this is truest of At the Edge of the Haight itself. This is a book that jumps its own shark.

Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill

At the Edge of the Haight, by Katherine Seligman

Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill bookshop.org

Erik Himmelsbach-Weinstein is the senior director of video for features and sports at the Los Angeles Times.
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