I like reading about the history of both Los Angeles and San Francisco. I also love San Francisco and often wish I had moved there when I was young. Although this book tells some great stories and anecdotes about the history of how the city became what it is today, it is principally about the San Francisco of the 60s and 70s wherein it careened crazily from one extreme to the other like a drunken sailor on shore leave.
The book has a decided liberal bent. You can tell because of what it fails to mention. On one hand, it goes out of its way to somewhat glorify the antics of the Hallinan family and their efforts to make the city a more equitable and just place to live which is all well and good, but it also downplays the role of communists like Harry Bridges to follow a party line which at that time was largely dictated by one Joseph Stalin, a man who certainly was no piker as an evil mass murderer.
In the author's defense, he does treat the sins of Jim Jones and those who helped him gain political power unsparingly. It was only the murders two weeks after Jonestown of Mayor Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk that allowed those most responsible for Jones's rise to power to go unnoticed and largely unpunished. The author was extremely fair in this regard.
The book is also highly entertaining and very well written. However, it is the fact that it serves as a perfect illustration of the nature of duality, showing how good and evil can exist in same person, in the same historical reality, and even in the retelling of the stories that is both its strong point and its major weakness.
The structure of book shows how a society marked on one side by unbridled creative freedom also could contain traits of extreme narcissistic excess and evil and would inevitably evolve into putrid decadence and violence. The slant to the left, however, gives the appearance that the author is a little unwilling to look too deeply behind facades to tell a more balanced story. In short, he seems a little too enamored of the city's contrarian past, to recognize the role that such a past plays in the problems that the city currently faces.
The ancients would have understood the role that drugged out ecstasy plays in the search for self knowledge; they would have also been abhorred at the idea of handing it out in punch bowls without the structure and guidance to contain the flow of flood waters of the subconscious. They would have known by their understanding of the cult of Dionysus about the monsters and the violence that would be unleashed. It makes one wonder if the people who set The Summer of Love in motion understood that truth, or, if it all happened as spontaneously as they would have us all believe.
There are several books that should be read in conjunction with the reading of The Season of the Witch. Acid Dreams by Martin A. Lee is one. The book details the efforts of our government in programs that utilized LSD. Chaos, released last year, by Tom O'Neill, is another in that it presents some of the things going on at Haight-Ashbury Free Clinic in a more sinister light. One might be surprised to discover that our government was also spiking the punch bowls of unsuspecting people and also appeared to be trying to use hallucinogens to implant false memories into people.
I think anything that deals with the history of the Venona project would help balance out the view of this country's Cold War history where those who fought against communist infiltration are almost always portrayed as the bad guys and those who participated in espionage against our own country are considered to be naive at the very worse. There is plenty of guilt to go around from that time period, and our continuing reliance on Hollywood to tell us the way it all went down, and Hollywood's smug self-serving excuses not only hinders our ability to truly understand the era, but also cast some suspicion of its current actions and pronouncements.
In this light, Season of the Witch successfully underscores the fact that there is both good and evil in damned near everything that enters into this world, and that is always the people in the middle who get screwed. It would have helped his message if the author had done a better job of clarifying it more simply as the formula: good things inexplicably often come out of bad intentions, and evil often grows out of well meaning people.
The biggest problem of this book is the naive belief that it was a Super Bowl victory that saved the city from its demons. It might have stopped the bleeding for a while but can be regarded as a cure only if you think of a band-aid as a cure. I think it is hard to look at what the city has become and not think of San Francisco as a elegant lady haunted by her past, her beauty, and her sins.