RARA-AVIS: Good thread

From: Moorich2@aol.com
Date: 03 Sep 2000

This may be the best "What is HB" thread since I joined a few months ago. In part that may be because the discussion has been a bit broader than usual and rambled into related, very interesting areas.

I agree with Kevin's post about this being a living genre or otherwise we are all wandering through a museum. Yet, Anthony's answering post seems to say that there may not be as much disagreement as it would appear. While he says the definition of hardboiled "doesn't change," he also says it does expand and adapt. I think that is change and the very sort others (including myself) applaud. At some point (different for each of us, perhaps), an expansion or change may cross the line. As others have said, that doesn't make it bad, just something else.

One of the pleasures of Rara-avis is learning about new authors or pushed into reading those known but unread.

I've owned several George P. Pelecanos novels for some time but never read them. I came close several times as I lived in the Washington area until last year and heard he made great use of the locale. I think I was put off by blurbs, covers and reviews that led me to think this was yet another tortured, alcoholic lead character.

So now I've read NICK'S TRIP and was very impressed. The alcohol is there but it is not just another gimmick or prop. Nick is one of the most interesting characters I've tumbled on in a long time. It's a great character and a wonderful voice. I always enjoy a certain amount of political or social commentary in a novel and Pelecanos has just the right amount. He really does know the area well and I've never seen it put to better use. As for his treatment of gay characters (mentioned a few days ago), there are several in this novel, male and female, I see no evidence of prejudice. In fact, I see the opposite.

There are flaws in NICK'S TRIP. The flashbacks to provide background go on a bit long and there so many of them in the early going that it slowed the momentum. Not a major thing but something I felt could have been handled more smoothly. The biggest problem was with the plotting and resolution. I am an easy reader to satisfy on this front and give an author a lot of latitude. When I am bothered by gaps and holes and characters suddenly ignoring the obvious or behaving in ways explicable only by the need of the author to reach a conclusion, then the problem has to be pretty bad. Plot may not be what Pelecanos is after but there is a minimum level that has to be achieved for the novel to be in the first rank.

The other novels by Pelecanos I have with me are KING SUCKERMAN and SHAME THE DEVIL. I'm wondering which to try next.

Sorry for the long post, but I also wanted to weigh in on the use of language in novels based in the past. I strongly believe that it is wrong to apply PC standards to works set in more overtly racist eras. It is false to ignore that aspect and once that PC process starts, everything is easily corrupted.
 As someone pointed out, it does "whitewash" the past. We should be reminded of it and cringe when we read it. As an aside, very few writers I have found from the "golden age" of the 40s and 50s dealt with race at all and even fewer dealt with it bravely. One such was Aubrey Walz who wrote under the name Frances Bonnamy. Not an HB writer, in real life she was a tough character who fought against the Sen. Byrd machine in Virginia when it was at the height of its power.

All that being said, I am currently reading (and very much enjoying) Edward Bunker's DOG EAT DOG. It takes place in the 90s and, of course, the characters are all low-lifes. The "N" word is used frequently and more than once hoodlum characters blame blacks for the violence in society today or other ills. I'm hanging in there with Bunker as these characters would believe that and would say that. But then there is a throwaway bit with a cab driver saying to a main character: "Ach. Most are lazy. Their women do their work. They did the work in Africa; they do the work here. Over there they sat around and told war stories with their balls hanging out and feathers on their heads. I saw it in National Geographic."

The response by the lead character/listener: "Tony chuckled despite himself. Even a fool could be funny."

There is much to admire in this novel. And it is about some of the most screwed-over and screwed-up people in the world. But this adds nothing to the picture of that life or the development of the character of Tony that isn't handled in so many other scenes. So I think there is a line that can be crossed. Were I the editor, I would have cut this as gratuitous racism.

Richard Moore

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