Saturday, September 25, 2004

Hard Revolution by George Pelecanos

I just read the latest by George Pelecanos, Hard Revolution, which is a prequel to his earlier books Right As Rain, Hell To Pay and Soul Circus; depicting the life of an African-American private investigator Derek Strange (and his white sidekick Terry Quinn) in Washington D.C., the location of Pelecanos' all books. These three books were very fluently written crime stories with occasional flashes of brilliance, even though the black-and-white pairing of a sensible older man and a young hothead and a combination of gory violence and clean family values made me think of those morally questionable Lethal Weapon movies (sadistic violence onscreen balanced by glorifying the values of your basic American nuclear family). Though Pelecanos is far better than those dreary Mel Gibson biopics.

Nevertheless, this time we have to do without Strange's ill-fated Irish partner Terry Quinn, who isn't even born yet in the tumultous year of 1968 when Hard Revolution takes place.

In fact, the story starts even nine years earlier, in 1959, when Derek Strange is a boy of twelve hanging out with a Greek-American Billy Georgelakos whose father owns a diner where Derek's father Darius Strange works as a grill man. Derek's mother Alethea works as a maid for the family of a hardened cop Frank Vaughn and his liberal wife who continuously embarrasses Alethea with her remarks intended to show how enlightened she is on the black liberation. We are also introduced Derek's smart and bookish, "troubled but good", older brother Dennis, who gets involved with a bad company, which will be crucial in how the events of 1968 are going to unfold. Then there are a couple of obligatory white racist redneck greasers Buzz Stewart and Walter "Shorty" Hess, who will also be entwined in the later storyline. Their future associate, neighbourhood bully Dominic Martini will provoke Derek to commit a theft in a local corner store, the outcome of which event will be crucial in his later development.

A leap to 1968. Derek Strange, now 21, is a rookie cop working with his partner Troy Peters, another whitey with good intentions for the black struggle but still missing it from the actual African-American perspective. Dennis is now the black sheep of the Strange family, a small-time drug dealer carrying with him a copy of Eldridge Cleaver's Soul On Ice and hanging out with his no-good acquaintances, the murderous Alvin Jones and the womanizer Kenneth Willis. Jones and Willis plan a robbery of a local shop with Dennis Strange as their unwilling partner; while at the same time Stewart and Hess with their reluctant associate Dominic Martini -- who has given up his bullyish behaviour after a stint in Vietnam -- run over an innocent black boy in a drunken hate crime, then are going to commit together a bank robbery. As the backdrop we live the time of Martin Luther's King's murder and the ensuing Washington D.C. riots. The violent drama will unfold both on a common and private level.

Well, Hard Revolution has generally received rave reviews -- reading of which last spring made me eagerly wait for months for the paperback edition to arrive to my local bookstore -- though personally I have some reservations of my own. Perhaps this is so because I can't help comparing the works of George Pelecanos to my own favourite crime writer James Ellroy whose American Tabloid and The Cold Six Thousand also take place in the tumultous times of the Kennedys' and Martin Luther King's murders but are seen instead from the perspective of white racist redneck criminals and the Mob. (I just can't wait for the third installment of the trilogy, Police Gazette, which should be out in 2005.)

James Ellroy's books are furious rollercoaster rides where the distinction between "good guys" and "bad guys" is often blurred or impossible: his characters are obsessed, at their best morally ambivalent, violent, racist, crooked, greedy and sexually lusty, if not downright perverted. The outlook of Ellroy on American life is subversive, even anarchic; a critical viewpoint that could be interpreted "leftist", which is quite surprising knowing Ellroy's own conservative background. Reading American Tabloid and The Cold Six Thousand two years ago was something short of a revelation to me; it was like Ellroy had succeeded in totally capturing how the (American) system works; with its combined trappings of money, politics, media and crime. The mixture of well-researched historical happenings and people and convoluted fictional characters made reading those books a hell of an experience (as also Ellroy's ingenious "L.A. Quartet"). James Ellroy is clearly a man with a Vision. Perhaps Ellroy's genius is why a comparison even to such an undoubtedly excellent writer as George Pelecanos might be just unfavourable.

Nevertheless, there's no denying of Pelecanos' skills, whose writing style could be called cinematic (Pelecanos also works as a film producer); with a breakneck pace that gives the readers no chance to leave the book from his/her hands before it's over.

Also important are Pelecanos' emphasis on the African-American life and culture and the points he continually makes of the difficulty of different races living together and understanding each other (especially in opposition to Ellroy's overtly racist characters, which make reading his books sometimes problematic). I only find difficult the idealization of the "good" family life in Pelecanos' books in opposition to the "bad" life of crime. There's a sense of a black and white "a man's gotta do what a man's gotta do" thinking and morality familiar from the cowboy movies (Derek Strange is a big fan of Westerns, and Sergio Leone's films with Ennio Morricone's music are namechecked here often), often leading to simplistic and not totally satisfying solutions: the bad guy gets killed in the end, the hero goes back to his sweetheart and that solves it all. It's continuously emphasized what being a "man" is and what it is not, and what his "honour" consists of. Therefore these are clean-cut morality plays; I guess I personally see James Ellroy's more ambiguous psychological vision more "realistic" in comparison.

Pelecanos is also a big music fan dropping all the time references to his favourite artists and records. In his Nick Stefanos books those are mostly rock, punk, new wave and indie; here they are funk and soul -- Pelecanos has even made Derek Strange a music obsessive the type of Nick Hornby's High Fidelity, knowing by heart the catalogue numbers of his favourite soul labels (there was a companion CD of 60s soul and r&b with the book's early edition). It's a matter of one's personal taste if these ongoing music references feel somewhat contrived and slow down the reading, or will they add to the Zeitgeist of the era his books are depicting.

To summarize somehow: yes, George Pelecanos is a good writer and his books are well worth reading, but in the end, they still leave something to be desired, at least to this reader.