San Francisco’s Pier 39 evokes strong family memories in Christopher Rice’s new novel, ‘Decimate’

San Francisco’s Pier 39 is an important backdrop to Christopher Rice’s novel “Decimate.” Photo: Yalonda M. James / The Chronicle

When Christopher Rice revealed that San Francisco’s Pier 39 would play a significant role in his new novel, “Decimate,” I was fascinated.

Some love the waterfront destination’s souvenir shops and attractions, the sea lions’ call and the scent of caramelized sugar. Others love to hate the tourist trap.

For Rice, now living in West Hollywood, Pier evokes 39 memories of his childhood in San Francisco in the 1980s. In “Decimate,” out Tuesday, May 10, it is used as a powerful metaphor for how certain places are endowed with deep personal significance.

When Rice was a child, his father, Stan, chaired the Department of Creative Writing at San Francisco State. His mother, Anne Rice, had already published “Interview With the Vampire” and other novels, but she was not yet the world-famous author she would become via Neil Jordan’s film of the book and her additional parts of “Vampire Chronicles.” “The family moved to New Orleans when Christopher was 10, but Rice calls San Francisco a kind of utopian period for the family.

“There was a sense of longing for childhood and longing for the experiences of going down to Pier 39,” Rice told me about the feelings a trip to the city recently evoked in him. “I still have a picture they took when you got on the ferry: I’m about 4 years old in this big swollen jacket. “I guess I’ve always had this feeling of connection with it.”

It’s a connection that many who grew up in the Bay Area feel for landmarks, and it feels completely authentic in the novel.

Author Christopher Rice. Rice’s new novel, “Decimate,” uses San Francisco’s Pier 39 as a central setting. Photo: Cathryn Farnsworth

“Decimate,” which ended before Anne Rice’s death at the age of 80 in December due to complications from a stroke, revolves around issues of grief and family connection. Claire and Poe, the sister and brother at the center of the story, are shaped by a supernatural near-death event in their childhood that leaves them mentally connected. Pier 39 exists as a space of remembrance that siblings find their way back to, an equally happy scene in their lives as it was for the author.

Rice said he did not set out to write about the city in “Decimate,” but by telling a story centered on life-and-death themes, “it inevitably grinded up all those San Francisco images.”

Rice, a New York Times bestselling author and winner of the Lambda Literary Award, lived with his parents in a gray Victorian on 17th and Noe streets in Castro. He still remembers class lunches at the Synergy Montessori school in Alamo Square Park, an option that was straight out of the “Full House” opening text. For Rice, now 44, these years are both idyllic and marked by awareness of the tragedies of the AIDS epidemic that changed Castro’s face in the ’80s. (In his novel “The Snow Garden”, Rice staged another scene on Pier 39 that revolved around a character revealing their HIV status.)

The trip he took to the city last month evoked those memories further, part of a trip up the California coast that Rice made while mourning his mother.

Christopher Rice’s new novel, “Decimate,” uses San Francisco’s Pier 39 as a central setting. Photo: Christopher Rice

It was not only the reality of AIDS in Castro that connects the city and the loss for him. As a child, he learned that his parents had a daughter, Michele, who died of leukemia before he was born. The event partially spurred Anne Rice to write “Interview,” which includes a child vampire, Claudia. It is possible to see the sibling bond portrayed in “Decimate” as a way to deal with that absence in one’s own work. Through all these great questions, Pier 39’s presence shoots itself both as a framework and as a representation of the power of memory.

During our recent phone call, Rice told me that “Decimate” is the book his mother had long hoped he would write, due to the exploration of larger themes that permeate the story.

“She really wanted me to go deeper into my own cosmology and thoughts about the universe,” Rice said.

Rice does exactly that in “Decimate”. And by using a place as unexpectedly common as Pier 39, while exploring weighty concepts of mortality and existence, he makes these themes accessible. For anyone who has also grown up hearing the barking of sea lions and smelling caramelized sugar at the pier, it can hit even more powerfully.

A large crowd gathers at the Pier 39 shore to watch the Blue Angels air show on October 9th. Photo: Ricardo Cano

By Christopher Rice
(Amazon Publishing; 432 pages; $ 24.95)

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