Pelecanos, Site-Specific

At the Washington City Paper, Mark Athitakis comes to terms with Pelecanos’s way with DC details in a most unusual manner – crafting a glossary of sorts:

The stuff that George Pelecanos doesn’t write about much anymore

would make for an interesting yard sale. There, a stack of videotapes

of black-and-white noir films; there, a bin of Nation of Ulysses LPs,

Captain Beefheart tapes, and spaghetti western soundtracks; there, a

table full of gewgaws from road trips to the Outer Banks. Strewn about:

bongs, shot glasses, and coke-dusted coffee tables. Back in the

mid-’90s, when Pelecanos was building a reputation as a hard-boiled

crime novelist for the hipster set, the pages of his novels were often

stuffed to the breaking point with such artifacts. They’re mostly gone

now, and what he’s hung onto says something about Pelecanos as an

author—and even more about his vision of the District.

Pelecanos has spent more than 15 years writing 15 novels that, taken

together, make for a panoramic story about Washington, D.C. That’s a

lot of waterfronts, a lot of neglected corners, and—to pick just one of

the writer’s hobby horses—a whole lot of references to Stax/Volt

singles. But there’s an irony buried in this career path: As his study

of the city has deepened, his writing has become more and more

simplified. Read his books in chronological order—starting with 1992’s

A Firing Offense up to the brand-new The Turnaround—and the change in

Pelecanos’ writing mirrors the change in a typical Pelecanos character.

There’s a youthful recklessness, then a growing wisdom about the

world’s complexities, then a kind of essentialized understanding of it.

As his characters have gone through a debullshitification process, so

has he….

…The lexicon presented here is meant as a tongue-in-cheek guide to some

of those habits. Pelecanos may not always be the most accurate

authority on the District—his D.C. has more Greek-owned restaurants

than downtown Athens, and Metro’s “doors closing” announcement really

sounds nothing like “George Clinton.” Yet as a bestselling author,

perhaps he’s the chief ambassador of the non-Federal District—the chief

ambassador of REAL WASHINGTONIANS—to the wider world. These are the landmarks he still wants you to know about.

I love Athitakis calling Pelecanos’ evolution in writing style a “gut rehab on his own prose.” Because that’s certainly the case: both THE NIGHT GARDENER and THE TURNAROUND represent a more mature, lean style, one that propels forward but is also more contemplative. I suspect, when the time for such things eventually comes around, we’ll realize this is middle-period Pelecanos. And if that’s the case, I wonder what’s in store for late-period?