RARA-AVIS: Pelecanos losing his edge?

From: tieresias@att.net
Date: 03 Feb 2004

Kerry wrote:

> Catching on to the talent of George Pelecanos late, journalist and noir
> author Vern Smith was so impressed that he tore through the entire ouevre
> in about two months, declaring Pelecanos the best crime writer of our time.
> Maybe it's this perspective that has allowed Smith to see in the writer's
> latest, titled "Hard Revolution", what others overlook in their eagerness
> to pat the icon's back: "George Pelecanos is losing his edge."

I haven't read _Hard Revolution_, but in an interesting bit of verisimilitude, I *did* just complete _Right As Rain_, the first of his Derek Strange/Terry Quinn novels. It is my initial exposure to Pelecanos' work, and based upon the experience as a whole, it most like will be my last.


What I liked about Pelecanos' work:

Good pace, wonderfully balanced descriptions, a really good *feel* for the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area. Pelecanos' sense of place is well- developed, and as in all the best crime fiction, the city itself is a viable character in the story. He's got a sense of humor. His action sequences are also well-done.

What I didn't like about Pelecanos' work:

Characterization, characterization, characterization. I didn't believe it when Derek Strange (who is black and in his 50s) spoke, especially to other African-American characters. All too often it was like looking at a photograph of someone, as opposed to seeing the actual person. The form was there, and the slang and idioms were assiduously inserted into the dialogue, but that's just it: it didn't *sound* right to me. It "sounded" like a carefully constructed on a well-founded base. It wasn't organic. It seemed too self-conscious.

Perhaps (as I mentioned in an earlier post) Pelecanos suffered by comparison to Walter Moseley's marvelous _Fearless Jones_, which I finished just previous to starting _Right As Rain_. Moseley has a great ear, and the cadences, rhythms and rejoinders of his characters flow effortless (after all, the toughest thing about doing anything is making it look *easy*!).

Back to Pelecanos, this seemed like a fellow intent on showing the grey in people alongside their good and bad sides, at least with his protagonists
(particularly Terry Quinn), and I think that he failed by and large in this ambitious undertaking. His villains are all the way bad. This in and of itself isn't something to make me want to stop reading, but since he also insists on writing in that problematic revolving third person limited omniscient P.O.V. (I know, I know, I'm not looking to open *THAT* can of worms again!), and he's telling the story at least in part from the perspectives of the white-trash country hicks who are working as drug running mules and from that of the most successful black drug lord in the city, he's got a real opportunity to let the reader inside the heads of these caracters and make them *interesting*.

He does not. His "bad guys" have no good spots, no balance to them, and as a result, no humanity. His dumb-ass cracker mules (drunken father and short- man-with-a-big-gun-complex meth-head son) could easily be extras in a Kid Rock video. You just know they've still got their mullets. As for the drug- lord, hmmmm expensive suits, snappy patter, flat characterization and mouthing racial cliches? Didn't I see this guy in that Wesley Snipes movie
_New Jack City_? I know I saw his muscular, always-wearing-sunglasses-no- matter-the-time-of-day side-kick in it.

Another thing that's uneven about these villains is their level of menace. Are we supposed to be afraid of these guys? There's a point at which they double-cross and kill a couple of Columbians they're in business with, and they seem *almost* scary. Later, when there is the much-anticipated show- down between Strange/Quinn and these two ludicrous country-fucks, wherein Quinn gets the jump on them out in their barn/drug warehouse, in a make- shift "bar" the short-guy son has constructed, and when the guns start blazing, the short bad guy misses with his shot, because (wait for it.... wait for it....) he catches the heel of his built-up, four-inch heeled cowboy boot on the rail running along the base of the bar he's oh-so nonchalantly leaning up against, and Quinn drills him. PLEASE!

Although Pelecanos is good at constructing the impending showdown between these two sides in a methodical, believable manner, there is no tension, I'm never uncertain of the outcome. Conquering evil (at least in literature) only seems an accomplishment when the dragon seems like a DRAGON, and so on. Great heroes are defined by the great menace they face down and overcome (or in the case of a good noir tale, which they face down and succumb to). These creeps never stood a chance, and the violence late on in the book seems pretty much anticlimactic.

The thing that frustrated me the most about this book was how Pelecanos teases the reader. He shows flashes of great, polished writing here and there, some of his dialogue is quite good, but in the end there were too many cliches, too many corners cut, too much shifting of perspective with no rhyme nor reason (some times in the middle of the chapter) for my tastes. I was left largely unsatisfied by _Right As Rain_, which surprised me, because I picked it up based largely on some of the praise I've seen lavished on his work here at RARA AVIS. Now, Al Guthrie's _Won't Hurt At All_, through which I'm wending my way at present, is another story entirely...

It goes without saying that this is only one man's opinion, so take it for what it's worth, and if we disagree on Pelecanos (as I have in the past with several here whose opinions I value highly over such writers as James Ellroy), well and good. In the end, I wanted to like his work, I gave it every chance, I just didn't buy it. I'm sure he's a great guy and we'd enjoy a few beers together, and in all likelihood he wouldn't think much of my writing either.;) That said, bear in mind that I saw such potential for a better, more satisfying read in _Right As Rain_ than I found. As to "losing his edge," if his earlier stuff was better than this, I'd say those claiming he is losing are probably spot on. Of course in order to confirm that, I'd have read more of Pelecanos' writing, and I don't see that happening. What with Al Guthrie to finish, Jack Bludis waiting in the wings and Joe Gores' stuff hot on his trail, I think I've got my hands full for a little while!

All the Best-


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