In the novel 56 Sanchez, author Rene Jax provides an amazingly detailed and riveting account of the transition of Richard, a gender dysphoric male who adopts a female presentation to become Rachelle, while pursuing employment with the San Francisco Police Department during the late 1970s. It is a narrative that chronicles the vicissitudes of Rachelle’s life well into the 1980’s. A lengthy, yet very readable effort, Jax does a masterful job at portraying the seamier side of life in the “City by the Bay,” a view that is also vividly depicted by another transitioning transsexual, Christine Beatty in her graphic memoir, “Not Your Average American Girl.” In addition to sharing locale, both books are set at just about the same moment in time, when drug use, sexual freedom, and the AIDS epidemic are all beginning to find confluence.
This is a book that provides a down-to-earth portrait of Rachelle’s exploration of her sexuality and gender, set against a backdrop of substance abuse and social injustice. Written in a tone that conjures up the grainy intimacy of old-style detective movies, the reader is confronted with some very disturbing questions, forcing us to delve into matters we may know about but generally do not explore, except perhaps in a work of fiction such as this, or an insightful memoir about a transgender person or maybe by watching the Jerry Springer Show. It is fraught with horrible examples of violence and bigotry directed at someone who merely wants to live authentically; a transgender individual representing a minority that pose absolutely no threat other than possibly not fitting in with our cultural norms. We are offered a very raw look at the injustices, violence and even rape that may be carried out against those of us who are only different by virtue of our gender expression.
Written by an author who has obvious familiarity with the San Francisco Bay area as well as a keen understanding of the inner workings of the San Francisco police force, author Jax deftly captures the essence and flavor of the Bay area, while honing in on the glamour and grit of a law enforcement job. Jax also writes about intense transphobia, particularly at the hands of the San Francisco Police Department, a group responsible to the public trust to “Protect and Serve.” This intolerance is sometimes presented covertly in “mere” prejudicial attitudes, but often much more obvious in the bigotry and even violence directed against our heroine, Rachelle. It brings to mind still another fine novel, “Shadowboxer,” by Paula Sophia, a book that eloquently depicts in a fictional account, a similar experience with the vicious transphobia of the Oklahoma City Police Department.
Offering a haunting profile of someone struggling to be accepted and live her life as a “normal” woman, this book is almost guaranteed to challenge the reader’s beliefs, evoke anger or perhaps bring tears. Because the characters are well crafted and the dialogue honest, the reader is guided through the full range of emotional experience as Rachelle fights to find a place in the world as a woman, all the while battling both her internal demons and the malevolence of those around her who reject her for her differences. In so doing, this book provides is with a graphic reminder that we all struggle to accept ourselves and be accepted for who we truly are.
This novel (or is it really a memoir?) moves the reader through the author’s astute and deft crafting of the very real people it portrays. The storyline is excellent and there are enough plot twists so that there is never a dull moment. The characters are a microcosm of a prejudicial society that permits institutionally invoked intolerance, casts shame and all to often hurls violence against hapless victims who are unfortunate enough to be caught in the middle. It is a rare work of fiction that explores the plight of a transgender person so profoundly and rarer still to incorporate such an assessment into the macho world of police work.
At the conclusion, we are left wrung out, but happy to find that the ever-resilient Rachelle finally frees herself from her substance abuse issues and cleans up her act, realizing that she must have the SRS procedure to feel complete as a person. In keeping with an old running joke that weaves through this novel about a suicide jumper who, upon his descent down past the lower floors of the building is asked the question “How’s it going?” (by some idiot, I would guess), Rachelle leaves a cryptic, yet very understandable phone message about the results of her surgery for her best friend, Dan. The simple communication left on Dan’s tape is, “So far so good.”
With this, we can finally take comfort and pleasure at knowing that Rachelle, at least in that particular moment, has no regrets and is ready to savor every remaining morsel of her life.
[Reviewed by Samuel]