The novels of George Pelecanos breathe with life. They radiate reality. Not the pseudo-reality of, say, reality television. Most of that stuff is all contrived anyway. I’m not even talking about the reality of other works of crime fiction where the protagonist is, say, an unpublished writer/blogger who reviews crime fiction and solves one case by happenstance and, then, solves fifteen more as the series keeps getting renewed, the life of the hero never in doubt.
I’m talking about something more, something human, something true. These books are fiction, natch, but they don’t read like it. They read like a newspaper article or a story from "Dateline." The suspense in a Pelecanos novel starts its slow but inexorable rush early in each novel when he introduces each set of characters. Again, that’s not new or unusual. But there’s a certain originality to the way Pelecanos structures a novel. He shows you Group A and their daily life and he shows you Group B and their daily life. In a thriller or other mystery books, you know that Hero and Villain will meet and said meeting is inevitable and preordained. What makes a Pelecanos book unique is that, often, the two groups would never interact except for one event, something by chance, the event that is the central focus of whatever book you are reading.
Take Pelecanos’s latest novel, The Turnaround (2008). In 1972, when three white boys get drunk and high and decide to drive into an all-black neighborhood, nothing good will come from it. You know it, one of the main characters even knows it, but drive in they do. Yes, there is suspense as you read about their actions. But the real suspense starts in your head when you realize what the boys are going to do and what might happen. You’re mind plays tricks on you, making your heart beat faster and your palms sweat. You come up with all sorts of dire results. Pelecanos gives you one result and then shows you how it ripples across the decades.
The three teenage white boys drive into the black neighborhood, hurling racial epithets and food at three black youths. The problem occurs when the boys in the car realize that the neighborhood has no outlet, that there is a turnaround at the far end. There is only one way out and that road is now blocked by the three black teenagers. The lives of all six boys now come down to their actions that day. One white boy runs away, one white boy is killed, and the third is scarred for life. Two of the black teenagers go to jail while the third has to come to terms with his actions. The scene of the attack, told from the perspective of Alex Pappas, the boy who gets scarred, is heartbreakingly tragic. It shows the moment of clarity that laid bare the alcohol-fueled decisions that led him to that moment. And in that moment, he called for his dad.
The story shift to 2007 and reintroduces the five living men whose lives came together for a moment thirty-five years ago. Alex Pappas, the son of a man who ran a coffee shop, now runs the same coffee shop with his older son. Alex’s younger boy died in Iraq and Alex lives with the loss every day. Raymond Monroe, the black boy who didn’t go to jail, is now a physical therapist at Walter Reed Army Hospital in D.C. His son fights in Afghanistan. These two men meet again one day after Alex brings sweet treats to the wounded soldiers at Walter Reed. The two men start talking, about life, about their decisions, about how their lives changed after “the incident.”
Into this normal life storms Charles Baker, the man who, as a teen in 1972, gave Alex his scars. Baker’s out for some payback, both from the white boy who ran away (now a successful lawyer) and Pappas. The other black youth, James Monroe, Raymond’s older brother, the one who went to prison for the murder of the white boy, is an ex-con whose life is nothing more than beer and being abused by his boss, the owner of the auto garage where Monroe works. Baker’s got designs on Pappas, his family, and things owed him. And, just like in 1972 when he was the bad kid, he’s still a bad influence on everybody. He wants what’s his and he’s gonna get it, one way or another.
Pelecanos’s books are part of the modern sub-genre of crime fiction that focuses on society and social issues. Actual crimes are committed in his books but they are not the focus of the story. These books are not whodunits. His books investigate the reasons behind a crime or, in the case of Washington, D.C., the environment that produces crime. Some of Pelecanos’s best books—Hard Revolution, Drama City, Soul Circus—have dealt with this theme. It’s a theme echoed in HBO’s “The Wire”—which Pelecanos helped to produce and even wrote a few episodes over five seasons, even recruiting two other members of this social crime fiction group, Dennis Lehane and Richard Price.
You could drop the label “Dickensian” on Pelecanos. I’m not talking prose-wise or intricate plots. I’m referring to Pelecanos’s penchant for airing the issues of the day without flair or fanfare. Life is life and here is what it’s like for the kinds of folks not normally the characters in mainstream fiction: blue-collar workers, black youth, ex-cons, parole officers, police. It’s probably this focus that keeps Pelecanos from gaining the fame and fortune some see as owed to the Dickens of D.C. When he gets his big book, his Mystic River, his overnight success will be decades in the making. (Note: you could argue that Hard Revolution is that big book. To date, I think it is.)
As a writer, what strikes me most is the way Pelecanos goes about presenting his stories and the tension and suspense therein. Some authors marvel at their own mastery of the English language and the myriad ways to write about two groups of teenagers about to inflict harm on one another. Even I fall prey to this kind of writing as readers of this blog can attest. Pelecanos is a blue-collar man and he is a blue-collar writer. He is a student of the Elmore Leonard School of Writing: don’t let the author be present in the prose. Pelecanos writes short sentences, without flair, workmanlike, unadorned, straightforward. He just writes what happens and lets the events and characters speak for themselves. You see, his stories are sufficient. I can’t help but wonder if some of those books out there with a lot of authorial flourish are not merely masking a sub-par story. I think that’s the case for some.
There’s a clear bravado to his prose, something Ernest Hemingway might appreciate. The men—and they are usually men—who live in Pelecanos’s world are tough. Their language is tough and it spills into the prose. Pelecanos’s love of westerns, both film and novel, infuse the feel of his novels. You certainly get that sense with the Derek Strange novels (Right as Rain, Hell to Pay, Soul Circus) even if it doesn’t show up with quite the same intensity here in The Turnaround. You could really feel the influence of “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly” with Pelecanos’s previous novel, The Night Gardener.
Not that Pelecanos is perfect. The Turnaround is a good Pelecanos book, but not great when compared to other titles in his bibliography. However, a good Pelecanos title is often head and shoulders above much of what’s out there. And he has his quirks. Late in the book, there’s a scene with two new characters so Pelecanos writes, “Two men sat in a gray Dodge Magnum that was facing east on Longfellow Street.” Nothing wrong there. But when the focus shifts back to Alex, Raymond, and James, sitting around drinking beer, we already know who they are and we knew they were going to get together. Pelecanos opens the scene as if Chapter 28 is really Chapter 1: “Three men sat in an alley under the light of a security lamp and a crudely painted sign reading ‘Gavin’s Garage.’” He then proceeds to introduce us to our three main characters as if for the first time. Same thing happens early on after he’s introduced the three white boys and then writes this: “Three teenage boys cruised the streets in a Grand Torino, drinking beer, smoking weed, and listening to the radio.” I think this might be the visual aesthetic coming to the fore, like directions for a screenplay. Nonetheless, it’s a little annoying. Introduce characters and move on, using their names.
As you can expect, violence plays a role in this book but there’s less of it than you might think. When you think of crime fiction or mysteries, you might expect shoot-outs between gangsters and cops or books where the characters are not changed by violence. You want that kind of stuff—and I love it, I’ll be honest—look elsewhere. You don’t get that kind of thing in a Pelecanos book. You get real, honest-to-goodness violence, not contrived or convoluted. It’s the same type of random violence I mentioned in my review of Allan Guthrie’s Kiss-Her Good-bye. One moment there isn’t violence, the next second it’s there, and the last second, everything has changed and you can’t go back. Another dose of reality Pelecanos injects in The Turnaround and his other novels is the various reactions of the characters to violence. One of the characters in this book is killed and, right before the end, when he knows he’s going to die, the character loses bladder control. It’s wholly natural, a reaction any one of us would probably have. It helps books like The Turnaround ring true in a world where murder is real and lasting.
What I Learned As A Writer: Trust your story. George Pelecanos trusts that you, the reader, will read his book and go where he leads you. Granted, with this, his fifteenth book, he doesn’t have to start the novel with a killer sentence or paragraph like undiscovered writers like me have to do. But he does move ahead at a certain pace, never wavering, through the entire story, his workmanlike prose doing its job. He lets his characters act and speak for themselves. He doesn’t try to commit some literary gymnastics in order to keep you reading. The characters, as they are presented, are gripping. You want to read. You want to find out what happens when three white boys drive into a black neighborhood. You want to find out how, as men, these characters interact with each other after so many years gone by. Pelecanos believes in these characters. He compels the same of you.
If it is of a certain quality, good art—whether music, literature, art, dance, film, television, etc.—can change you. Some of this art stays with you long after you’ve closed the book or left the museum or turned off your TV. I read a lot of books and I’ll admit that not all of it is lasting. They were good at the time but the memories have faded. Not so with the novels of George Pelecanos. They stay with you, embed themselves in your brain, becoming part of your memory. That is a trait of a true artist. That is what it is like to read George Pelecanos. Do yourself a favor: make some new memories.