by George Pelecanos
Published by Little, Brown
400 pages, 2004
It's All About Soul
Reviewed by Kevin Burton Smith
Washington, D.C., novelist George Pelecanos' Hard Revolution, which serves as a sort of prequel to his still-small series about black middle-aged private eye Derek Strange, doesn't shy away from social or political commentary. However, this book is hardly a plodding polemic or a shrill litany of theoretical finger-pointing. It's actually one kick-ass read, with an impact that relies as much on character development as it does on the hard-boiled action for which this author is well known. That's because Pelecanos understands that the true action takes place in the soul -- and soul is the operative word here.
From its opening epigram, which quotes the tormented proto-blues of Bruce Springsteen's Adam Raised a Cain, to the freebie CD that accompanied early copies of this novel, Hard Revolution is the real deal, the crime-fiction equivalent of an old Stax single crackling from a dashboard speaker, full of naked passion and emotion. OK, the song choices on the bonus CD are pretty obvious, a no-brainer selection of Sixties standards from the likes of soul men Otis Redding, Sam and Dave, and Solomon Burke that belabor the point (many of the cuts are actually mentioned in the text); and sure, this self-conscious multimedia cross-promotion gimmick may offend purists, but with a book this good, who the hell cares?
And make no mistake -- this novel is very good stuff indeed, Pelecanos' strongest, most vital and courageous work yet. It's a heartfelt burst of storytelling that delivers on every single promise made by early books such as A Firing Offense (1992) and The Big Blowdown (1996), but that, more importantly, promises still more further on down the road. It's not that Pelecanos is treading new ground here, and certainly his loyal readers will immediately recognize all the familiar landmarks of his world -- the careful, loving attention to pop culture and (especially) music; the sprawling, racially mixed cast of flawed winners and losers caught up in a crossfire they don't understand; and the swirling, multiple storylines that apparently move those characters relentlessly toward a violent, gut-smashing head-on collision. But he's never been this on top of his game before.
The social history of Washington's assorted ethnic and cultural communities, past and present, and the ties that bind them, has always been Pelecanos' obsession and calling card, but he hasn't previously played that card with such confidence, passion and expertise as he does here. In Hard Revolution, he invests the struggle of those communities with real depth and real blood, real sweat and real soul, offering a historical perspective that not only illuminates Derek Strange's history, but holds a match to our present, burning down many of the smug, complacent myths with which we attempt to comfort ourselves and blame others. The choice is ours. In a town full of would-be losers, Pelecanos stands defiant, daring us to win.
Early scuttlebutt about Hard Revolution suggested Pelecanos was running out of steam, offering nothing but a tired retread of earlier work, and that one of American crime fiction's Great White Hopes was now merely spinning his wheels. After all, the series featuring Strange and his white ex-cop partner, Terry Quinn, may have started off impressively with Right as Rain (2001), but the subsequent books -- Hell to Pay (2002) and Soul Circus (2003) -- although short of neither passion nor ambition, failed to re-scale those heights. Naysayers, though, were wrong to write him off so easily. By eschewing the hard currency of Strange's contemporary Washington, D.C., and instead retracing the character's early years, Pelecanos has finally found the handle he was looking for to say things about love and honor, family and friendship, fathers and sons, what it means to be brothers -- and particularly about the convoluted choices we all must make in life.
The book opens on an idyllic spring day in 1959. The "magnolias, dogwoods and cherry trees [are] in bloom," and Derek and his "Saturday companion," Billy Georgelakos, are playing in an alley behind the Three-Star Diner in northwest D.C., where both their fathers work. Young Derek has three heroes in his life: football star Jim Brown; his older brother, Dennis, an intense, idealistic and bookish teenager; and especially his father, Darius, a hard-working family man. This is a pleasant reminder not so much of a different time, but of just being a different age, an age of sports dreams and comic books, fierce friendships and wide-open futures, where even the distant world of adults doesn't seem too bad. It's a simple, stratified world where white is white and black is "colored," and where honest, decent working people like Derek's parents may chafe at the boundaries, but generally know and accept their lot in life. Yet Derek and his friends and acquaintances are already coming face to face with some difficult choices. He may be only 11 years old, but already he's reached some basic conclusions:
Billy was Derek's first and only white playmate. The working relationship between their fathers had caused their hookup ... most of the time, outside of sporting events and first jobs, colored boys and white boys didn't mix. Wasn't anything wrong with mixing, exactly, but it just seemed natural to be with your own kind. Hanging with Billy sometimes put Derek in a bad position ... but Derek figured you had to stand by someone unless he gave you cause not to.
Derek proves to be equally precocious on the subject of racism:
Sure, Billy often said the wrong things, and sometimes those things hurt, but it was because he didn't know any better. He was ignorant, but his ignorance was never deliberate.
However, the most important lesson for Derek is still to come. An unlikely source soon lays it all out for him: "Everything you do as a young man can affect what you become or don't become later on." This epiphany is arguably the key to the whole book, and Derek and Billy are soon presented with ample evidence that it's never too early to make bad decisions, and that there's no shortage of ignorance -- deliberate and otherwise -- out there.
During the course of their wanderings on that spring day, the boys hook up with two Italian brothers: Dominic Martini, a hulking 16-year-old bully intent on mischief; and his shy, slump-shouldered 14-year-old brother, Angelo, who lacks Dominic's "size, good looks and confidence." Pelecanos also introduces us to Lydell Blue, Derek's "tightest friend," his slightly more streetwise bosom buddy "going back to kindergarten." In the picture, too, are Buzz Stewart and Walter "Shorty" Hess, a pair of 18-year-old white juvenile delinquents right out of a William Campbell Gault or Henry Gregor Felsen hot-rod novel; along with Alvin Jones, a small-time drug dealer, and Kenneth Willis, two young black men who aren't "headed anyplace good." In addition, we catch a glimpse that day of Officer William Davis, then one of the few black policemen in the U.S. capital, who strolls by, impressing young Derek with his bearing ("That's a man right there," Derek decides), and Detective Frank Vaughn, a hardened white street cop who knows a change is gonna come, and isn't any too damn happy about it.
As always, Pelecanos manages to weave together his disparate players with links both subtle and profound -- Jones and Willis are friends of Dennis; Frank Vaughn's maid, Alethea, is Derek's mother; Dominic works at the same gas station as Buzz, and so on. Even the author's other series private eye, Nick Stefanos (Down by the River Where the Dead Men Go), makes a brief cameo appearance to emphasize, once and for all, how connected we really are to each other.
Seven chapters into Hard Revolution, though, we fast-forward to the year 1968, and a whole new thang. The days of innocence are now officially over, and some of the seemingly random or inconsequential choices those boys made have come back to haunt them, often with devastating results.
It's a turbulent time, with a bloody war raging in Vietnam, and racial and social strife unsettling the conventions of American society. There's angry music playing in the bars and cafés at night, and revolution in the air. Washington, D.C., is a powder keg, just waiting to be set off, and the "race riots" that will follow the murder of civil-rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. lurk right around the corner.
Enter Derek and Lydell, both now rookie police officers, proud of their profession despite the fact that they're viewed with suspicion by many in the black community. But some of the other young men haven't fared as well -- Dennis is a disillusioned Vietnam vet-turned-pot-smoking slacker; others are now in free fall, trapped in dead-end jobs or worse, small-time crooks and losers looking for an easy score. Jones and Willis plan to knock over a small market, hoping to reel Dennis into their scheme, while Stewart and the increasingly out-of-control Hess plan to rob a bank with Dominic's help. Suffice it to say that these guys are not exactly criminal masterminds, and their road into the sunset is actually closer to the highway to hell.
All these subplots snake their way through Pelecanos' narrative, twisting and crisscrossing one another as tensions in the surrounding D.C. community rise, heading toward the inevitable, conclusive violence and broken lives that will destroy, once and for all, much of the world Derek has known, and many of the things he thought were true.
Yet, down these mean streets a man must go, and this time, Derek Strange is that man. He's a proud man, a good man, trying to live by the code his western-movie-loving father has left him. That code may not be much -- essentially that a man's gotta do what a man's gotta do -- but it's all Derek has to cling to when his world explodes.
And make no mistake: it's a man's man's man's world here. Women are seen in Hard Revolution, and occasionally even heard from, but they tend to be shunted off to the sides, as mothers, wives, lovers and girlfriends, playing no major role in the action -- in much the same way that Laura Lippman ignored men in her 2003 novel, Every Secret Thing. This isn't out of disdain for the gender, and it's certainly not out of anything even vaguely resembling sexism; but Pelecanos has a sincere desire to say something very specific about one gender, and about the choices a man must make.
Still, one of my very favorite scenes -- and perhaps an intentionally pivotal one -- features an unnamed elderly black woman in a housecoat performing a simple act of human kindness. She comes out from an apartment building as the riots rage and gives Derek, assigned to the neighborhood, a teacup full of water. Then, together, they stand and watch a corner market burn. This is almost a throwaway scene, lost in the midst of all hell breaking loose; but Pelecanos has invested his novel with so much soul and empathy for these people by this point, that this small scene of compassion and generosity packs a huge wallop.
Not that this book is merely a collection of soft, fuzzy moments -- Pelecanos casts an unflinching eye over a society tearing itself apart, and nails that inevitable collision of dark forces right to the wall with some of the strongest writing of his career. He never lets readers forget that, underneath all the metaphor and rhetoric, there are real people here. While some have criticized Hard Revolution for it's rose-tinted, nostalgic opening chapters, deeming them nothing more than a facile romanticizing of the past, they're missing the point. By holding back much of the hard-boiled action he's usually associated with, the author actually makes us care about his characters and what will happen to them before he places them in the oncoming headlights of harm. And by casting this story in the recent past, he offers us a piercing look at our present, with moments of genuine anguish and hard truths that'll squeeze your heart.
In many ways, it's not just this latest book, but George Pelecanos' entire oeuvre that's been leading up to one brave lesson. It's a notion John Steinbeck understood, and expressed in East of Eden, which he encapsulated in the Hebrew word timshel ("thou mayest"). Or as Pelecanos' beloved Springsteen (whose Adam Raised a Cain deliberately name-checks Steinbeck's classic) once put it: "Man, the dope's/that there's still hope." It's an idea, not always popular in these cynical, fatalistic times, and one that you certainly don't often see in crime fiction, but Pelecanos is unrepentant: the choices we make always matter, and damn it, there is hope for the future.
Boy's not only got game this time, he's got soul. | April 2004
Kevin Burton Smith is a January Magazine contributing editor and a columnist for Mystery Scene. He's also the editor/creator of The Thrilling Detective Web Site. A Montrealer by birth and inclination, he swears he found the key to the universe in the engine of an old parked car.