Friday, May 22, 2009

Forgotten Books: Hard Revolution by George Pelecanos

(My latest entry in Patti Abbott's Friday Forgotten Books. For the complete list, head on over to her blog.)

Let’s be honest: among crime fiction aficionados, none of the books of George Pelecanos are forgotten. If you had to pick one, it would probably be Shoedog, the one that doesn’t fit neatly anywhere else. But that’s just quibbling. So, in honor of Pelecanos’s talk this evening at Houston’s Murder by the Book, I’m going to offer up one of my favorites: Hard Revolution.

Why, you ask, do I love this particular novel so much? Two reasons: history and music. As a historian, I appreciate a good historical novel. It’s an experience to immerse yourself in another time and place. In Hard Revolution, it’s the spring of 1968 in Washington, D.C. African-American Derek Strange is a young, rookie cop on patrol with a white partner. If you know Strange at all before this book, you’d know him for the trilogy of novels that take place in the early 2000s where Strange is a middle-aged private investigator. For all the power of those three books (Right as Rain, Hell to Pay, Soul Circus), you learn in Hard Revolution what made Strange the man he became.

The story is a good, typical Pelecanos story. Young men, trapped in dead-end jobs and dead-end prospects facing the looming possibility of being drafted into the Army and sent to Vietnam, think the way out of their hard life is crime and the thrills it can provide. One of those young men is Strange’s older brother, Dennis, a character mentioned in the original trilogy. Dennis gets himself wrapped up with some bad ‘friends’ and the end result ain’t pretty. The other plot thread involves a group of white boys who want to rob a bank but also killed a black man just for the hell of it. Brutal stuff, the prose version of a Springsteen song.

What sets this novel apart is the setting. These events take place in a critical time in Washington’s, and the nation’s history. On Sunday, March 31, President Lyndon Johnson told the nation that “shall not seek, not will I accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your President.” Four days later, on Thursday, April 4, Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in Memphis. The riots that ensued in the District are the literally fiery backdrop to Derek Strange’s odyssey. As a reader in the 2000s, we know what’s going to happen and that provides a nice, extra tension along with what the characters are doing.

Like the Star Wars prequels and the new Star Trek film (how’d SF get into this?), you really ought to read Hard Revolution after you’ve read the Strange trilogy. There are quite a number of little nods to the original trilogy in Hard Revolution that you, frankly, wouldn't get if you hadn't already read the other books. That's not to say that Hard Revolution isn't a good stand-alone book. It is. You'll just get more out of if if you know all the actions Strange did in the original trilogy especially the last one (Soul Circus). Hard Revolution isn’t to be missed.

Hard Revolution is also special because of the soundtrack. Pelecanos has rightly been praised for infusing his prose with the music of the times. He always tells you what certain characters are listening to. It makes his stories even more real, if that’s possible. With Hard Revolution, however, you got a literal soundtrack. Certain versions of the original hardcover came with an eight-track (heh) CD. It’s chock full of the songs Strange, his brother, and their friends would have been listening to in 1968. In a short paragraph on the sleeve, Pelecanos says it best: “This was the best of deep soul, describing the joy and pain of love, played and sung with mind-blowing passion, coming through the radio as the fury was building on the street.” You’ve got towering names on this disc: Wilson Pickett, Albert King, Curtis Mayfield (as a member of The Impressions), Percy Sledge, Sam and Dave, and Otis Redding. All the tracks are great and you can’t help but find yourself whisked back to the era. There are horns a-plenty in these songs, many of which have the bari sax blatting itself through the chorus. A favorite of mine is William Bell’s “You Don’t Miss Your Water.” This slow-burn song about lost love, of course, with the metaphor of a well run dry, but what makes this song is the cymbal. Throughout the entire song, the drummer plays high on the cymbal, a constant buzz that sounds like the sizzle Bell’s heart would make as his dissed lover burns it in a cast-iron skillet on the stove. Fantastic!

Albert King, in “Born under a bad sign,” sings “If it wasn’t for bad luck, I wouldn’t have no luck at all.” Well, for me, without George Pelecanos, I wouldn’t be reading crime fiction. He’s one of two reasons I am firmly and irrevocably a passionate devotee of crime fiction. Dennis Lehane’s Mystic River was the book that blew open the doors of the crime fiction world for me. Pelecanos’s Right as Rain (and Derek Strange the character) took the door off the hinges, smashed it, and burned the remains, basically telling me there ain’t no going back. Hard Revolution, thankfully, is the origin story of Derek Strange, set amid the turbulence of 1968, complete with soundtrack. What more could you ask for?

Oh, and if you're up for an audiobook, Lance Reddick, of "The Wire," reads this story. I listened to the audio version (an abridgment) then read the novel. Reddick's deep baritone timbre really gives voice to Strange.


Charles Gramlich said...

I've not read anything by Pelecanos. I've only recently began reading more crime/hardboiled stuff. Most of my reading has been SF/Fantasy/Horror/Westerns.

Jacob Weaver said...

I just read my first Pelecanos last year and this is where I started (a sin being from the DC area I know.) Come to think of it, I think your recommendation in "The Turnaround" review that you posted led me to it.

After finishing it what jumped out at me was the characterizations. No one writes a better character than Pelecanos. Period.

Scott Parker said...

Charles - I would argue that you could start where I started with Pelecanos: the three Derek Strange books. Drama City, perhaps my other favorite book, is very good and it's a one-off. I haven't read any of GP's earlier material. I'm saving it.

Jacob - I'll be sure to pass along your compliment to Pelecanos tonight when I meet him. As a reader from DC, do you recognized the places Pelecanos writes about?

Jacob Weaver said...

I may try to catch him too when he swings back home in June for a reading/signing (children permitting.)

Being from the suburbs I don't know the ins and outs of the rougher neighborhoods from his stories. I forced my Dad to read it when I was done and we've had some great conversations about the story's time period. He had quite a few stories to tell as well.

pattinase (abbott) said...

I always steer clear of abridgements. How did it compare to reading the whole story?

Scott Parker said...

Patti - It's usually just a sub-plot that's removed. On the one hand, if the author wrote it, he had a reason. On the other, the stories go along just fine with the sub-plots. It's a choice, really, and, back then, I was listening to more books than I read.

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