Tuesday, May 26, 2009


George Pelecanos has his shit down fucking cold. He is simply fucking incapable of writing a bad book. His prose is tight, his characters sharp, his sense of place unmatched, his plots organic. Thing is, I’ve read all of his shit and now the Nerd has the dude’s formula down cold.

It wasn’t always this way, dear readers. Remember all those great series that he did in his early and middle periods? The Nick Stefanos PI shit? The Karras and Clay revenge series (my personal favorite)? The Quinn and Strange PI stuff? Fucking Shoedog? Exciting-ass fucking books all.

And don’t get me wrong - I like all his late period standalones that he’s rocking now, like them something fierce. Shit, I think that The Night Gardener is one of his best and most strikingly different novels to date. It’s just that after Drama City and The Turnaround I fucking knew what was going to happen in The Way Home just from the plot description. I didn’t know the specifics and was still wrapped up in the story, all that shit, but it seems like he’s just repeating the same lessons over and over.  You know which character will be sacrificed and which will be redeemed and who will make the right choice to fit Pelecanos’s positive yet sober outlook on the struggles of inner city life in Washington D.C.

And I fucking love his seemingly authentic D.C., think it’s one of the most fascinating places to go in modern fiction. It’s just that I wish that he would shock and upset me again like he used to - like with Soul Circus or The Sweet Forever, books that were brilliant but had some fire to them, some danger, a sense that anything could happen at any moment to any character. Now Pelecanos won’t even allow random tragedy to enter his universe. If you do the right thing and work hard you’ll have some sort of redemption, mean streets and other obstacles be damned. He’s lost his sense of noir and just become the social realist crime novelist. I mean, he’s got the market cornered and everything but come on.

The Way Home’s basic plot is an old standby for crime readers: Dudes find dirty money, consequences ensue. Naturally, because Pelecanos is given free reign these days, the first third of the book is straight-up fucking prologue. We meet a bunch of kids in the same juvie cell block, the focus of the group being the sole white inmate, Chris Flynn. He comes from a good family and - unlike some others in the kiddie clink with him - is able to move on with his life and be a better person following his incarceration.

The book then picks up several years later where we find Chris and his old juvie buddy Ben working as carpet layers for Chris’s father Tom. Chris and Ben find fifty grand stashed in a gym bag while pulling up some old carpet in a house a real estate agent has acquired with the intention of flipping it. Chris, who has apparently learned the living shit out of his lesson, directs Ben to put it back where they found it, figuring it would just get the two of them in trouble somehow. Ben later gets drunk with another old cellblock pal of theirs named Lawrence and spills the beans on their discovery. Naturally, Lawrence goes and steals it where the other two boys just let it be. The two friends start to feel like suckers - Chris feels particularly bad for Ben since Ben doesn’t have the luxury of well-to-do white parents to fall back on in life - until a pair of motorcycle club boys come looking for the money they stashed before serving a sentence…

So yeah, obviously this time out Pelecanos is trying to shed light on the failures of youth offender reform and as always, the facts and preachifying parts are relatively painless and usually pretty interesting. The characters are all strong and feel very real. And, as with everything Pelecanos has ever written, the violence isn’t constant, but what’s there is fucking astoundingly well done and intense.

But Jesus fucking Christ, could there at least be a fucking twist somewhere in this beast? I mean, I’m not asking for it to end in a Mexican stand-off where everybody dies (on second thought, that would be hilariously fucking awesome) but shit, give me something to throw me off. And I’m not saying I want it to be like it turns out the butler did it mystery bullshit, just like anything noir-ish to happen. Like: the main character makes an ambiguous choice, a character I thought would never die dies, a decision by the main character gets his mom fucking killed - something exciting like the old days, something for the folks who liked it better when Pelecanos’s shit was a little bit fucking crazier.

Obviously the dude is trying to appeal to a more literary crowd, to yuppies who caught on to him from watching The Wire. That’s all well and good, but The Wire had the ability to shock, to be tragic on a grand scale. Pelecanos’s fiction has for a while now been decidedly more upbeat than that show, less bleak. I guess some would say his fiction has become more mature, more humane and positive, like one of the Curtis Mayfield songs Pelecanos likes to quote in seemingly every novel. Maybe the fact is that the Nerd just isn’t mature enough to appreciate what he’s doing these days, that the Nerd is too caught up with the more dark and badass elements of crime fiction to appreciate Pelecanos’s more Dickensian approach to the genre.

That very well could be, dear reader, but that doesn’t mean the Nerd can’t pray old George loosens up and has some unadulterated-low-brow-nasty-fucking fun next book around.

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