Saturday, March 05, 2005

If You Can't Do the Time

Hard Revolution, by George Pelecanos, Read by Charles Canada, BBC Audiobooks America, 2004

The Washington D.C. crime writer George Pelecanos is most often compared in reviews I’ve read with L.A.’s resident crime novelist James Ellroy. To compare the two, I think misses a serious distinction between them. Certainly they both write crime, they deal with race relations, they feature a good deal of violence, and they follow a variety of characters to the point where their stories converge. These are sizable similarities, but Pelecanos writes with eloquently simple prose; Ellroy writes in acidic bursts of hardness. Pelecanos writes “sex” for “vagina” and “member” for “penis.” Ellroy is a “cunt” and “cock” man. That kind of distinction is more than just semantics or delicacy.

What’s more, Ellroy is ultimately an extension of the more thoughtless now forgotten pulpy crime novels you could buy by the armload at bus stations everywhere, while Pelecanos is within the school of crime novels as literature, books that became classics simply because they transcended their boundaries. This is not to say that Pelecanos will be remembered longer than Ellroy, as sales has become more a domineering force in publishing than quality or pushing the envelope, or that he is a better writer, but that Pelecanos writes with a sensitivity to other worldly considerations than homicide.

As with the best of crime novels, Hard Revolution features much anger, much seediness, much violence, yet often that is only symptomatic of the social sicknesses the writer shines a light on. Crime novels remain distinct from mysteries or detective books, though they often have elements of both, in that there is a larger world than just the crime under investigation. There is a nihilistic vision and a crushing sense of forces bigger than anything or anyone else in the book. There are complicated motivations to each character’s actions, real world considerations like making the bills, protecting your loved ones from dangers overt and subtle, hiding your sexuality, and things you’ve done in your past. Which is to say, the best crime fiction is truly fully realized adult fiction about crime, while Ellroy and the like remain adult in the sense that it isn’t fit for children.

The history of this genre has been largely unwritten, largely unconsidered simply because of writers like Ellroy, writers who polish off comic book (in the worst sense) ultraviolence and cartoonish he-man-she-devil sex by the bushel. To read the Library of America Crime Novels two-volume set, you discover novels capable of pushing not only the envelope for tension but also for social commentary. Abortion, homosexuality, interracial attraction, topics typically taboo for the times (30s through 60s) were discussed freely, largely because censors rarely deigned to handle what they considered adult juvenilia.

Hard Revolution is the book Pelecanos has said he always wanted to write. After an author does that I’m not sure what else is left for him or her to do, so we’ll see how his career develops. This book is a prequel to Pelecanos’ Derek Strange trilogy, a group of books about a retired black police officer working as a private detective in the D.C. area. There are a number of moments that are written (and read) as though they would be meaningful to readers familiar with the novels, little literary pauses that reader Charles Canada expressed softly like when Strange as a boy talks about getting a dog. I did not fit into the category of deeply read in Pelecanos and frequently felt the sensation that you get at a party where everyone knows everyone else, but you don’t. It’s in-jokey and shop-talky, but it’s so gently done that it never distracted.

While Pelecanos does concentrate much of his attention on the larger world, in its first half the book focuses on Derek’s childhood leading up to the seminal moment when he’s caught shoplifting. The second half shifts to Strange’s career as a police officer and the mounting racial tensions of the sixties leading up to Dr. King’s assassination in Memphis. The book has, as its two climaxes, crimes committed by Strange, one putting him on the path of righteousness, the other knocking him squarely off of it. In that sense, Hard Revolution works like a classic tragedy as we build to the downfall, in a sense, of a good man, though Strange’s second crime is perfectly understandable, a blood crime likewise in the classic sense.

While the character name of Derek Strange is a bit too metaphoric for my tastes, the weakness of crime and adventure novels coming out there, he is one of the better painted African-American characters written by a white man. There seems a general weakness for writers to inhabit the Other fully. Men write pathetically weak, one-dimensional female characters; white authors write stereotypical black characters (see, King, Stephen); black authors depict clueless rhythm impaired honkies; and women show us the stupid sitcom guys all too popular on television.

This is quite a testament to Pelecanos’ skill. He writes complex characters, he manages to portray a realistic life of a character unlike him, he structures a intricate plotline, and he manages to elicit a real sorrow for a historical event like the King assassination.

So why did I finish this book and feel vaguely dissatisfied? Partly it’s that Pelecanos is so delicate with his crime (which is not to say that there aren’t graphic moments, like when a bankrobber’s lower leg is severed after he’s hit by a car). Partly it’s that he’s relatively an optimist, and the best of all crime fiction is post-Edenic in the sense of soiled humanity. There is a freedom in lapsed humanity that allows you to fully say what it is you’re trying to get out there as a crime novelist, and while Pelecanos can write unredeemable scumbags, he’s trapped with his (metaphoric) white knight sensibility.

For example, there is a slow motion telling of the riots that raged in Washington following the assassination of Dr. King, but Pelecanos’ description is too sluggish, too detached. Derek being in the middle of this should be feeling it starkly, yet there is a formaldehyde injected sensation to it all, as though the details were carefully selected from a historical society volume on the subject and not lived through. It is the ability to make tangible to the reader such visceral moments that Ellroy has in buckets and should be lending to Pelecanos.

If anything, it is Pelecanos’ unwillingness to follow his darker impulses all the way to where they will lead that keeps his name from shining brighter in the crime writers canon. He’s more than proven he can write the characters that keep us interested; the question is, can he write the crime?

Reader Charles Canada has a smooth baritone that never gets in the way of the story, but a shortage on variation of inflection, dialect, or tone. It is almost possible to see him sitting stiff upright to read Darius Strange, Derek’s father, while leaning in and sneering when the sniveling villains get their chance at the mic. He is a quality reader of a quality writer, yet both somehow just manage to fall short of the mark.

No comments: