Wednesday, July 26, 2006

America’s 5th or 6th Greatest Living Novelist Gets His Props---and Maybe a Decent Payday, Finally

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.

Monday, July 24, 2006

It Can’t Happen Here

“Divided in Detroit: Arabs and Jews Clash Over Mideast War” reported last weekend’s Wall Street Journal. For at least one reader that headline conjured the image of grim-faced Hadassah ladies strapping on their Nikes and exercise togs and engaging in a running battle over the broad green lawns of Bloomfield Hills with similarly clad members of the Lebanese-Syrian Junior League.

It hasn’t come to that, at least not yet. According to the story, the “clash” between Detroit’s 300,000 or so Arab-Americans (the largest such community in the nation) and its 72,000 Jews (many of them “upper middle-class professionals,” the Journal observed) over the latest Israeli-Arab conflict thus far mostly consists of competing rallies, some provocative rhetoric, an exchange or two of profanities and the predictable doctoring of an Israeli flag with a swastika. Stuff like that.

“Some Jews say they are realizing, for the first time, the depths of their differences with their Arab neighbors,” reported the Journal, which noted that most of Detroit’s Arab-Americans---Lebanese, Palestinians and Iraqis---reside in Henry Ford’s old suburb of Dearborn, west of the city, while many Jews are domiciled in the northern suburbs, along with a considerable population of Iraqi Christians.

In Houston, of course, we have no such “clashes,” because, as we’re often reminded, one of our strengths hereabouts is our diversity, and, as this recent Houston Chronicle feature noted, we have a long avenue in town named Hillcroft (no hills that we can see, and no crofts anymore, either) on which you can buy a bagel from a Jew, a falafel pita from an Arab and a cowboy hat from a Mexican (this nicely written but surface-y treatment was marred by the observations of All-Purpose Pontificator and Master of the Obvious, Rice University’s Bob “You-Need-A-Quote” Stein, who cleared his throat to say of Hillcroft: “I want to say it is a microcosm.” Of the city’s varied ethnicities, that is. [ I want to say … ?])

Reading the WSJ story put us in mind of a drive we took the summer after 9/11 with the Israeli owner of an auto-repair shop, a ride that in fact culminated on Hillcroft. Our car had broken down near the Israeli’s garage, so we pushed it over there and after discussing the needed repairs the proprietor offered to drop us at our house, since he was headed over that way to eat lunch at an Arab-owned bakery and deli that was one of the businesses featured in the recent Chronicle story. He told us he drove over there to eat falafel at least three or four times a week.*

“Isn’t that nice,” we thought, “this Israeli guy coming all the way over here everyday to break bread with his Arab brother … ”

Then we got the rest of the story, unprompted: Not only was the falafel delicious, but the place was clean and the owners were Christian, unlike other Middle Eastern eateries in the vicinity that were Muslim-owned and not so clean and where the falafel apparently was not so appetizing. Warming to the topic, the gentleman went on to heatedly declare that most of Houston’s Muslim merchants were a sorry lot, dismissing them twice with a term we often hear on the fine HBO series Deadwood. He was quite insistent on the subject, and claimed there had been much “shit” spoken in the wake of 9/11 by local Muslims (none of which we had or have knowledge of, of course, not that it's outside the realm of possibility, or that we'd ever be informed of such by the local media).

After he let us off we had the same thought that occurred after we read the Wall Street Journal article: Do y’all have to bring this shit over here?

This same edition of the Journal contained an interview with free-marketeering economist Milton Friedman, whose idealism appears to have been tempered somewhat in the middle of his tenth decade.

You’d expect the 94-year-old Friedman to embrace the open-borders policy endorsed by the WSJ’s editorial page (well, pretty much ...), and while Friedman avers that “immigration is good for freedom, in theory,” he goes on to say: “In principle, you ought to have completely open immigration. But with the welfare state it’s really not possible to do that … If there were no welfare state, you could have open immigration, because everybody would be responsible for himself … At the moment I oppose unlimited immigration. I think much of the opposition to immigration is of that kind---because it’s a fundamental tenet of the American view that immigration is good …”

Friedman also offers some sensible thoughts on the Iraq War, which he has opposed from the start: “I think it was a mistake, for the simple reason that I do not believe the United States ought to be involved in aggression.”

He's no longer Rush Limbaugh's favorite economist, apparently.

*As usual, any resemblance to persons living or dead is coincidental. Slampo's Place is a work of fiction -- Hidalgo Hidalgo, publisher and executive vice-president

Tuesday, July 18, 2006


A friend of our son---a classmate and musical accomplice---moved back home to Israel with his family three weeks ago. They had lived in Houston since the boy was in the 7th grade, while the father completed an assignment at The Medical Center. The parents apparently tried to find some way that their son could remain in Houston and finish his last year of high school, but either couldn’t swing it or decided not to.

In one of our periodic efforts to relate to our spawn, a few months ago we asked what his buddy would be doing in Israel and were told he probably would be “hanging out, y’know, playin’ his bass” until he had to join the army (one of the endless variants our kid employs to say, Don’t bug me, daddy-o, with your 1001 tiresome questions).

Our son missed his friend’s going-away because of the trip he takes every summer to visit relatives in New Jersey. On the airplane ride home last week we noticed he was spending even more time than usual with the newspaper, and out of the blue he remarked that he was pretty sure his friend lived in or near Haifa.

When he got home he learned that his friend had been in touch with another friend and related that his family was trying to get back to Houston, as soon as possible.

Monday, July 17, 2006

War on Drugs

We returned from our annual mid-summer excursion to the Jersey Shore with a sore throat and a touch of sinusitis, perhaps brought on by our compulsion to jump into the 57-degree waters of the Atlantic Ocean at the crack of dawn (dawn cracking briskly at 5 a.m. or so thereabouts) and then pass the coolish nights in our underdrawers beneath a whirring fan and next to a bank of open windows ushering in the damp sea breezes (our in-laws’ refusal to install unneeded air conditioning being one of their many endearing traits).

Whatever brought it on, by Sunday we felt the need for minor medication, so we made our way to the Wal-Mart Neighborhood Market in search of Advil Cold and Sinus pills, which we recall from previous usage as having taken away our headache, opened-up our cruddy nasal passages and left us with a mild, uplifting buzz that did not unduly interfere with our sleep. But when we bent down to the accustomed place to retrieve a box, all we found was a stack of colorful laminated cards bearing a picture of the box and instructions directing us to take the card to the pharmacy counter to obtain the “product.”

We noticed the word “pseudoephedrine” on the card and quickly surmised that this strange new requirement had something to do with the state of Texas’ efforts to stem the supposed epidemic of methamphetamine manufacture by amateur backwoods chemists (we’re not sure what “pseudoephedrine” is, but we do recall something from the late 1970s that was called “ephedrine,” which contributed mightily to our success in grad school, along with 2-for-1 coupons for Roy Rogers roast beef sandwiches and a teaching assistantship that required us to do no work whatsoever).

The pharmacist, a Muslim native of the Subcontinent, appeared to be busy rearranging prescription sacks and studiously ignored our presence, compelling us to begin tapping our little laminated car loudly on the counter. Finally he ambled over, looking bored and projecting all the warmth and charm peculiar to his native “culture.” (Note: This is the writer’s clumsy stab at updated vaudevillian “ethnic humor,” for which we at Slampo’s Place apologize – Hidalgo Hidalgo, executive editor)

We handed him our card. “I need to see your driver’s license,” he said.
“Why?” we asked whiningly. “Because I have to,” he replied. “Oh,” said we, (not a people-pleaser by nature) and dug into our wallet with a great show of weariness and disgust. The dour pharmacist took our license, looked us over quickly, then tapped something into a computer.

“What is your phone number?” he asked. “Why?” we asked again, even more whiningly. “Because I have to get it,” he said, bridling a bit.

“Have to get it … wha?”

Our head was really starting to hurt, most likely because of the loud voice in it screaming, “Why don’t you just give him your phone number, asshole?” Instead, we resorted to the patently stupidest thing we could say: “Uh, I don’t have a phone number.”

“You have no phone number?” he shot back, sounding as if we’d confided that we had no dick.

“No,” said we. “Is there some rule that says I have to have a phone number to get a pill for a headache?”

The dour pharmacist from the Subcontinent turned away quickly and began tapping vigorously on his keyboard. We imagined our name and license number going straight to DEA headquarters, to be cross-referenced against our consumer profile and ACT scores. Our head was pounding. We gave it another shot: “Listen, why do you need a phone number? Isn’t there some judicially sanctioned penumbra of rights emanating from our Constitution that allows me to buy Advil without giving away my phone number?” (We didn’t actually pose that last question, but we thunked it, sort of.)

The medicine-mixing man gave no reply. He stared intently at his computer. Our head throbbed. It appeared we would have to traipse to another drug store for our pills, where our second attempt to procure pseudoephedrine would no doubt arouse serious suspicion, or turn tail for home and settle for the Bayer in the cabinet.

“Hey, uh, can I give you a number that I use, where I can be found, I mean, in case somebody needs to get in touch with me?” No answer. We slowly enunciated a number with an out-of-town area code that came to mind. “How about that---is that OK?” we asked. He tapped. Time passed. More tapping. Then he reached behind him, grabbed a box of Advil Cold and Sinus pills, and without a word or a smile handed us our dope.

We sighed louder and longer than Al Gore after a two-hour rubdown at Mimi’s Spa and Nail Emporium.

But when we finally got to the self-checkout register (“Don’t forget your bills below the scanner!”) and swiped the Advil box, the display flashed something about purchase of the product being limited to adults, thus requiring a Wal-Mart worker to stroll over and give it a sanctioned swipe. Our head was about to blow right off, and we hadn’t even popped any pills.

But now we’re home, and our headache has greatly subsided. The sore throat’s gone, too, to somewhere, at least temporarily, and we’re breathing freely. We were able to perform all our chores and duties, to the best of our limited abilities, and even found a little time to write down this song and sing it to you.

Soon, though, we’ll retire to the bathroom to cook up a tub of crank and run that shit up any way we can.

See ya on the police blotter!

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Out of the Office

Slampo’s Place is headed up for the East Coast for summer vacation, just in time for the breaking of the New Jersey budget impasse that led to the closing of the state’s casinos and beaches (New Jersey, as you know, is the state where motorists are forbidden by law from pumping their own gas, and where, last summer in the quaint burg of Cape May, we saw four guys [all whiteys] in commercial painters uniforms daubing over a 4-foot-high picket fence that couldn’t have been more than 30 or 40 feet in length).

We will return the week of July 17th, perhaps sooner.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Ken Lay Is Dead …

And that, of course, is too bad.

It’s too bad any time a human passes---unless his name is Al-Zarqawi---although we all gotta go sometime. It’s especially unfortunate in Lay’s case, in that he’ll never have to serve whatever sentence the judge would’ve handed him (you get the impression it would have been a stiff one).

We hope, however, that media will restrain itself from repeating (at least too often) the predictable flights of metaphorical fancy about Lay’s having died “of a broken heart,” etc., or God having finally called his humble servant home. It’s just as easy to imagine that God, who we understand works in mysterious ways, looked down on that Aspen vacation home and decided to send his humble servant straight to hell.

Mostly, we hope that mere death will not be occasion to remake Lay as a good guy, a misunderstand visionary and selfless philanthropist who was done in by cruel circumstances beyond his control.

Stranger things have happened.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Why We’re Flying Our Flag Today …

Because it still waves, over Cecile’s Salon and 360 Tarjetas Telefonicas and Dan Jacobson Automobiles Inc. (DBA Hillcroft Auto Sales).

Not because we support the hoked-up war.

Or the silly-ass flag-burning amendment.

Or warrantless searches and sanctioned torture.

Or unchecked presidential power.

Or [whatever’s next] …

A decent respect to the opinions of our neighbors requires us to make that clear.

Sic temper tyrannis! (Figuratively speaking.)
And kiss our mottled Scots-Irish ass!

Photo: Humongous Old Glory in the breeze near Bayland Park, corner of Hillcroft and Bissonnet, southwest Houston, July 4, 2006 (note gathering clouds in background).