Wednesday, November 30, 2011

George Pelecanos: DC's Crime Aficionado

“Three teenage boys cruised the streets in a Gran Torino drinking beer, smoking weed, and listening to the radio.” It doesn’t take much to imagine how this scene could go wrong.
And it goes very wrong.

Although it takes place over the course of thirty years, George Pelecanos’ novel “The Turnaround” is really about that one night in the 1970s, when three white kids the Maryland suburbs get into a car and drive south into The District, looking to taunt some black kids. The worlds of three white kids and three black kids collide, and like atoms the collision creates a massive explosion. One dies, one goes to prison, one is permanently injured, but all are scarred for life.

Thirty years later, the events of that night still haunt everyone involved.

Best known for his screenwriting works like HBO’s “The Wire” and “Treme,” Pelecanos wields words like they’re weapons. This isn’t crime genre fiction (although there’s a lot of crime involved). It’s literature, and the best works of literature always involve crime. Pelecanos knows crime, and it shows in his writing. In addition the twists of plot, the depth of characters and the breadth of socio-political issues addressed in this novel, it’s simply damn well written.  

While horrifying and startling, this novel is also filled with hilarious ruminations on life in DC. Puffed-up lawyers speak condescendingly to food service staff. People shop for groceries at run-down Safeway stores. There’s an incredible dissection of the history and cultural intricacies of DC’s neighborhoods.

While it feels so much like DC, there are some great references in this novel that show how much the area has changed since the 1970s. For example, Shady Grove, now a sprawling suburban hell at the west end of Metro’s red line, is referred to as farmland.

One character in the book expresses what I assume is the author’s views on most crime genre fiction. It was “a fascistic genre because in these shows the criminals were always apprehended, and the police and prosecutors always won. The shows were warning the citizens, in effect, to stay in line. That if they dared to break the law, they would be caught and put in jail.”

While it’s true that some crime doesn’t pay, other crime does. And Pelecanos’ book is anything but fascistic. It tells the truth about violence, crime and resentment, which is something you don’t find in the Washington Post very often. Put down the newspaper, stop watching violence on the 11:00 news, and pick up this book. This portrayal of DC crime is much more realistic.

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