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Reviewed by Jack Magnus for Readers' Favorite
Haunts is a literary fiction novel written by George Jansen. The Financial District of San Francisco was in full holiday cheer that Christmas Eve in 1975. As Christmas was on a Thursday that year, workers were generally expected to have put in at least a few hours on the Wednesday before. It only seemed par for the course that Robin Jenks would be the one person in the Word Processing Department where she worked to be asked to stay later to process an important letter that afternoon. So, as her co-workers celebrated at Harrington’s and marveled over the fact that free cigarettes -- whole packs! -- were being given out at every street corner, Robin waited until, finally, word from above came down that the letter wouldn’t be going out that afternoon after all.
Haunts had a special significance for me even before I began reading it. While I wasn’t working in the San Francisco downtown area until nearly twenty years after the story takes place, Natoma Street between 5th and 8th Streets was a haunt of sorts on a daily basis. It was one of the rare streets where there were neither parking meters nor two-hour parking limits. I and many others quietly cruised the street, hoping for that moment when a space would open before our time to park ran out, and we had to ante up for conventional parking. I was frequently hit by flashes of recognition as I read Haunts as, sadly, the street and the people who had somehow ended up living there still seemed exactly the same.
Jansen’s book is a treat for anyone who’s ever lived or worked in San Francisco. I loved seeing it twenty years before I had arrived there, especially through the eyes of George Zumpo, the Native American with the Italian grandmother, who came to the city in his search for his wife, his VW camper and White Dog, his German Shepherd dog. Jansen knows the city quite well, and he shared that intimate sense of being and belonging with his readers. I’m in no doubt that even those who’ve never been there will finish the book feeling that, in some way, they had. He deftly adds historical touches to make the setting really feel like it’s the seventies: a reference to a cop show being filmed there at the time, to the adoption of Castro Street as a gay mecca, Harvey Milk at a celebration and a vision of South Beach before its reclamation as open space. His characters are credible and finely honed, especially Robin, Joey and George, and his plot kept me entranced. His writing is eloquent, powerful and assured. Haunts is a grand novel and it’s most highly recommended.