Cannibal Eliot and the Lost Histories of San Francisco Summary

Hilton Obenzinger

Cannibal Eliot and the Lost Histories of San Francisco

The cooperative reader is to assume from the title and from the introduction that a treasure of antique documents is at last being presented to an interested public. Only the back cover reluctantly reveals CANNIBAL ELIOT to be fiction. The introduction, though, is such a charming piece of disinformation, some suspension of the reader’s disbelief is earned.

Such readiness to be fooled, however, evaporates with “The Kiss,” the opening entry from the diary of Sergeant Grijalva. It is dated 1776, but the artificially antiqued language and deliberately coarse, unenlightened point of view dates this entertaining fraud as being contemporary with DANCES WITH WOLVES. The careful construction of “The Kiss” suggests that Obenzinger’s framework for his collection of short stories was meant to be appealing rather than binding, and, with the impulse to stickle put to rest, the reader may proceed through the chronologically arranged assortment of memoirs, interviews, and other “archived” manuscripts. Each offers a glimpse of San Francisco’s untamed past.

Ignorance, corruption, and cruelty are big themes, and no tale anywhere in the collection goes untold without a healthy dose of each. Sam Brannan, one of Obenzinger’s more interesting characters, was a real American Mormon pioneer who abandoned colonization for a more lucrative career as newspaper publisher and vigilante. His position in the community allowed him to manipulate commerce and the city’s gangs. Obenzinger places at his right elbow a man with a tattooed face nicknamed Cannibal because of speculation on the origin of his disfigurement.

San Francisco’s history is not long. Its details are relatively fresh, and Obenzinger had at his disposal several generations, any member of which would have lived a life worth recalling. He chose mad priests, grizzled prospectors, and dedicated whores and culled from their imaginary diaries snatches of history that might as well have been.