Some days we’re ashamed to live in a country where David Foster Wallace is considered a great novelist.
Then there are days like today, when we open the Arts section of the New York Times that we fished out of the freebie bin at Starbucks and find a lengthy and downright fulsome (but justifiably so) profile of George Pelecanos, the “crime writer” who’s not really a crime writer, and we briefly permit our self the illusion that there is some justice in this dirty ol’ world.
Pelecanos’ books have gotten highly favorable reviews for the past few years, including several in the Times, but according to the newspaper that hasn’t translated into much in the way of sales, although publisher Little, Brown is seeking to rectify that oversight with a big push on behalf of Pelecanos’ upcoming The Night Gardener.
Earlier this week, Times reviewer Janet Maslin called The Night Gardner “another of Mr. Pelecanos’ beautifully delineated moral tales, filled with gut-wrenching turns of fate and razor-sharp, boisterously vivid characters.” We haven’t read The Night Gardener, which won’t come out until next month, but that’s an apt description of Pelecanos’ previous 13 novels.
We discovered Pelecanos on our own, about 10 years ago, at a place where we then worked, when we saw a copy of his King Suckerman lying in a box where discarded and unwanted review copies were tossed. The book lay there for a couple of weeks or more---we later found a press release folded inside that said it had been sent along in connection with a then-past appearance by Pelecanos at Houston’s Murder by the Book store---before we finally took it home after more closely examining the jacket, which promised a dip into a ’70s milieu with which we were sort of familiar.
The violence in King Suckerman (and what a great name for a band, if nobody’s appropriated it) was pulp-ish beyond Tarantino, and the plot seemed constructed to be easily translated into a screenplay, but the book had such an overpowering sense of real-ness (whether or not you think that’s what a novel’s supposed to deliver) that we sucked it down in two evenings, then went to the library and started back-tracking through the author’s previous works. And we don't oridnarly read "crime" or "mystery" fiction.
All of his books are set in the Washington, D.C. area, where Pelecanos grew up and still lives, and in his early ones he created a multi-ethnic, multi-generational cast of characters (many, like him, Greek-Americans with working-class roots in the city’s mostly long-gone small diners) in an urban setting (with sidetrips to the suburban and rural) that is somehow always both faded and vibrant. D.C. is Pelecanos’ Yoknapatawpha, and his is almost as aromatic and full-bodied as the master’s (who himself was, at bottom, a mere crime writer).
Since then, Pelecanos has developed into a powerful writer, economizing on the violence and while going deeper with the characterization (which he establishes, of course, by showing people doings things). His works uniformly generate the headlong momentum and acceleration that Tom Wolfe found in the novels of James M. Cain.
As Wolfe wrote 35 years ago in an introduction to a collection of Cain’s works, Cain and Raymond Chandler were in a class by themselves “when in came to creating the atmosphere of Stucco Rococo, the Lay-Away Plan, and low-rent California …” And Pelecanos is pretty much in class to himself when it comes to attentively recreating life in the big city at the end of the 20th century and beginning of the 21st (and he’s not bad on the suburbs and the country, either), although he knows, from close study, the worlds he chronicles too well to dismiss them as “low rent.” When he writes---at once both hard-eyed and affectionately---of some cut-rate gangsta types driving around aimlessly while smoking reefer and eating junk food, you want to ask them to stop the car so you can step out for some air.
Pelecanos worked a number of real jobs before breaking into the writing racket, which probably explains why he writes so knowingly, and with such care, of the joys and drudgery of work. He seems to possess a deep knowledge (or the deft ability to fake it) of retail sales and bartending, of drug and alcohol abuse and 12-step programs, of cars and guns and stereo equipment and a multitude of other subjects. He’s also big on throwing down pop-culture references that sometimes intrude, but since he’s a fan of the John Ford and other westerns and Kurosawa movies and 1960s and ’70s soul music and punk rock that brought us so much joy before these unwanted hairs started sprouting on strange places on our body, we tend to cut him some slack.
A final note: With D.C. long having been a predominantly black city and all, Pelecanos’ novels usually include large casts of African Americans, most notably the private detective Derek Strange. To a man and woman these characters all come across as believable human beings---not the flimsily wrought touchstones for the redemption of white liberal guilt usually fashioned by Caucasian writers.
Here’s hoping Pelecanos finally cracks the best seller list, or at least sells more copies than 30 times less than what Michael Connelly sells.