Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Turning George Around

I’ve been a fan of Washington, D.C.-based author George Pelecanos ever since his work first appeared in the UK. That was thanks to publisher Serpent’s Tail, which took a chance on his early Nick Stefanos novels. (Pelecanos has since decamped, with his tales of Washington’s dark underworld, to Orion.) Over the years, I have interviewed Pelecanos on several occasions and learned much about his life and work. Of special interest has been his impact on the acclaimed HBO-TV series The Wire, though the author is quick to acknowledge that he finds his greatest pleasure in writing novels.

Having read a bit about his new book, The Turnaround, I already know it’s one that I shall be picking up shortly.

Meanwhile, I was delighted to discover an article in Britain’s Observer newspaper that charts the career of this quiet, 51-year-old man from D.C. Explains reporter Amy Raphael:
He is a meticulous chronicler of urban America: since A Firing Offense was published in 1992, he has produced virtually a book a year, all of which are set in Washington DC. Like The Wire, his novels reflect the troubles of a country that doesn’t know what to do about drug wars and inner-city collapse. When I ask Ian Rankin to place his friend George in modern American literature, he sends an e-mail saying: ‘I love the social context of his books, the sense of American history and the (small) place of the individual within it. They are not just (or even essentially) crime stories; they are about the roots of crime and its aftermath.’

His are anti-detective novels in which there are cops and law breakers, yet, as Rankin says, the structure is rarely based around solving the crime. Pelecanos introduced a black private eye, Derek Strange, in 2001’s Right as Rain, despite knowing that he’d face criticism as a white man writing about a black cop. He says it continues to be an issue with some people but he just ignores it; he’s not one to play by the book and he writes about what he sees around him. His work is celebrated for its realistic portrayal of the city in which he was born and has always lived; the dialogue is so sharp, natural and fast that you can hear the characters’ voices as you read; his perfectly timed popular culture references bring different eras to life.

I ask Pelecanos if he’s conscious of his novels creating an oral history of modern America. ‘Sure. I want to leave a record. Hopefully if you read a book set in 2004 after I’m dead and gone, it will provide you with an accurate picture of the way D.C. was in 2004. Down to the way people speak and the slang. I’m obsessed to the point where if I have a character walking down the street in April 1968 and there’s something playing in the movie theatre, you can believe the movie was playing that week. It’s a small detail that would pass most readers by, but if it’s wrong then someone’s going to know and they’ll call bullshit.’
The Observer feature is a fascinating primer for readers not familiar with Pelecanos’ work, especially as it includes a few substantive nuggets about The Turnaround. It just adds to my interest in the book--interest that was given another big boost thanks to a recent online review by novelist Linwood Barclay. He wrote:
Some crime writers impress us with their villains. They invent bad guys so heartless, so evil, we can’t shake them from our heads when we go to sleep. And you don’t have to go to the lengths of creating a brilliant serial killer like Hannibal Lecter. Someone like Marlo Stanfield, from The Wire, the brilliant HBO series to which George Pelecanos contributed, will do nicely.

Pelecanos has created some pretty nasty people in his fiction, but it’s his good guys that stay with me. Pelecanos writes about ordinary people whose simple acts of decency seem all the more extraordinary when measured against their daily struggles.

The Turnaround is Pelecanos’ 15th book and it’s one of his most satisfying.
Returning to The Observer, its story makes quite clear the direction Pelecanos is headed with both this latest book and future ones:
[The Turnaround is] an ambitious, complex story of a group of white and black adults who decide to make amends for the mistakes of their youth. As with all his books, Pelecanos brings in an autobiographical element; in this case, one of the central characters, Alex Pappas, works at his father’s lunch counter from a young age. The fact that one of the boys’ friends was murdered simply motivates the story; the focus is rather how people have to find a way to get along, even if it means absolving people of murder.

There’s a stipulation in Pelecanos’s contract that requires him to produce crime novels. Much as I don’t see him specifically as a crime writer, I’m surprised when he casually announces: ‘I can honestly say you’ll never read a straight mystery from me again. A murder being solved by the end of the book ... it’s just never going to happen. I’m just not interested in writing that kind of book.’ He smiles. ‘I'll probably move away from straight crime and just write books. But there will definitely be conflict. Because that’s what drives fiction.’
Read the full article here.


Michael Carlson said...

Don't you think that shot of GP in his Mustang Bullit looks like a PI in LA, not a writer in DC???

For a big take on The Turnaround check this out:


Anonymous said...

Pelecanos is without a doubt my favorite writer. His books are incredibly entertaining and the closest thing, in terms of books, to watching a movie.