dcWriters: George Pelecanos
January 30, 2013 by Bryce Wilson
“It’s not like it was.”
“It’s exactly like it was. It’s people enjoying their city.”
DiGeorando looked across the channel and shook his hand in the air as he walked, the wag of his fingers meant for me. “You don’t know what I’m talking about Nicky,” he said. “You are not old enough to remember.”
Nick’s Trip by George Pelecanos
Washington, D.C. has produced a huge variety of authors, of all eras, literary stratas and genres. dcWriters will be a reoccurring look at the writers who have defined the D.C. literary scene, and how the city is portrayed on the page.
At the risk of playing my trump card too early, this week’s column takes a look at my favorite author the city produced: George Pelecanos.
Connection To D.C.: George Pelecanos is arguably the greatest crime novelist working today (I would personally put him behind only Dennis Lehane and Daniel Woodrell, and tie him with Don Winslow). Pelecanos is a D.C. native and has made it his life’s work to chronicle the city he so clearly loves. To Pelecanos, D.C. is a microcosm of America, equal in its potential and its heartbreaking inability to live up to it. Pelecanos sees D.C. as a crucible, a place where the all the country’s races, ethnic groups, and religions collide, rip into each other and every so often make something like slow, stumbling progress.
After starting with a series of semi-autobiographical crime novels set in the city’s shrinking, blue-collar, Greek neighborhoods, and dying New Wave scene, Pelecanos branched out through the city’s history with the D.C. Quartet. His body of work creates a stunning, ground level alternate history of the city that extends from the 40s (The Big Blowdown) right to the present day (The Cut)
THE D.C. NOVEL: Truly, ALL of Pelecanos’s novels bleed D.C. He does to D.C. what Lehane does to Boston and Ellroy does to Los Angeles. He makes it sing with jolting, vibrant specificity. In this sense, any of Pelecano’s novels can be classified as the D.C. novel.
That being said, you corner most fans and they’ll point to 1997’s King Suckerman, centered around the eponymous blaxploitation film and the mayhem that surrounds its release. Now don’t get me wrong that novel is awfully good. But my personal pick for the indispensable Pelecanos novel would be 1998’s The Sweet Forever. Which is just… Oh. My. God.
Like Lehane, Pelecanos is really a social novelist wearing crime writer’s clothing. Not to say he condescends to the genre in any way, because he doesn’t. But he owes as much to Steinbeck and Dickens as he does to Chandler and Hammet. No where is this more evident than in The Sweet Forever, a sprawling Dickensian panorama centering around bent cops, black entrepreneurs, up-and-coming drug lords, blue-collar low prospect men, coke fiends, corner boys, and aging new wavers set against the breathtakingly vivid backdrop of U Street. As the promise of the 70s curdles once and for all into the disappointment of the 80s–and the city braces itself as crack and the straight edge scene first make themselves known–it’s as vivid a portrait of a people and a place as has ever been written. The Sweet Forever is simply an astonishingly great book. The work of an author at the height of his powers, absolutely on fire.
Where To Get In: Pelecanos has claimed his own favorite books are the novels he’s written about the character Derek Strange, a black ex cop turned private investigator. No offense to Mr. Pelecanos, but Strange has always come off as somewhat flat to me, nowhere near as interesting as the usual Pelecanos protagonist, so the books he’s in suffer as a result.
If not The Sweet Forever, I would recommend starting with The Nick Stefanos trilogy, the first of which is A Firing Offense. Stefanos is a worn down ex-New Waver who is the most glorious wreck in crime fiction this side of Ken Bruen’s perpetually damned Jack Taylor. An alcoholic and drug user, Stefanos stumbles into bad situations and usually makes them worse. They’re fascinating, deeply-felt crime novels. The best is Nick’s Trip, in which the sublimely dysfunctional Stefanos ends up on a journey that plunges him into his family’s past and pushes his stringent ideas of loyalty to their limits. It’s a white knuckle, bleakly funny, genuinely heartbroken little book. And the fact that Stefanos only played a starring role in three of Pelecanos’s novels (the author has gone on record saying he regards reoccurring characters as a “trap”) feels like a missed opportunity, although Pelecanos has teased of Nick’s return in his last two novels.
Other easy entry points include the first in his new series The Cut, which centers around Spero Lucas, a Greek Orthodox Iraqi war vet who works both sides of the law. The Cut is a compact, surprisingly small-scale novel, and Lucas as compelling a character as Pelecanos has created. Another popular choice is Pelecanos’s stand alone serial killer thriller The Night Gardener.
Where Not To Get In: As I said, Pelecanos loves the Strange novels but they’re simply not him at his best. Strange just isn’t that compelling of a character, and the plotting in the novels tends to get a bit on the shaggy side. While some of The DC Quartet can be read as standalones (The Sweet Forever…BUY IT NOW BUY IT NOW), The Big Blowdown plays explicitly on your knowledge of Nick Stefanos and his Papou so it’s not really for beginners either.
Other than that, with Pelecanos you can’t go wrong. Take your pick and be prepared to never quite see your city the same way again.
About The Author:
A freelance writer, unrepentant literature and film junkie and bookseller, Bryce Wilson is a recent California transplant living in Austin (he moved for the waters). Between bouts with his trunk novels, he has written for the San Luis Obispo New Times as a retro film critic for the past five years. You can also find his musings on his film blog Things That Don’t Suck (thingthatdontsuck.blogspot.com) and his horror blog Son Of Danse Macabre (sonofdansemacabre.blogspot.com).