Robert Rice, Jr. served in the U. S. Air Force from 1966-1970. His novel, My Summer on Haight Street (Fox Point, 296 pp., $14.99, paper), deals with the so-called 1967 Summer of Love from the perspective of a young man who has arrived in San Francisco from Milwaukee in a remodeled milk truck intent on learning the meaning of life at the center of the hippie universe.
I spent that summer in balmy South Vietnam, so I was eager to read about what I’d missed. I visited Haight Street in 1961 and again in the early 1980s. I saw nothing special either time. As a wise man once said, though, timing is everything.
Robert Ralston is the main character in this novel. We are with him as he graduates from high school and when he drives west with one of his best high school friends, Jim Gaston, who leaves the scene at a Colorado commune on the way. Earlier we were with him as he said goodbye to another close friend, John Haus, known as “Hoss,” who joined the Army and then was sent to Vietnam.
The stories in the book are presented in short, alternating chapters that focus on different characters, sort of the way Edgar Rice Burroughs wrote his amazing Tarzan novels. It is a very effective technique and held this reader’s attention as I wondered how Rice would pull all the threads together. He manages to do so.
Nothing good happens to Hoss in Vietnam. Jim Gaston is disillusioned when he realizes that a lot of the people on the commune want to get high and cavort rather than work hard to get the crops in. As for Robert, he falls into the hands of the FBI.
The book takes a serious political position; twice the author goes out of the way to have a character comment negatively on Robert McNamara, calling him an “asshole.”
The novel entertainingly takes us to a Doors concert and to a rabble-rousing communist meeting at which there are Weatherman Underground members present, including one killer bomber. When the main character looks for a room on Haight Street, he picks out the old Victorian house in which the bomber made his bombs. The landlady is a beautiful professor (and a communist) who is attracted to our hero to the extent of having sex with him in the shower. Although the main character has the same first name as the author, I don’t believe that this is a thinly fictionalized story of his time on Haight Street as a teenager. That would not be possible.
In the last couple of chapters we find out what happened to the main character in his long life when he returns to the San Francisco to accept a cheap plaque from the company he spent forty years working for selling insurance. There is a lesson there somewhere.
I enjoyed the book, but think my summer in Vietnam was just as big an adventure—plus, it it was free of the risks that Robert ran on Haight Street.
The author’s website is www.mysummeronhaightstreet.com