Category Archives: George Pelecanos

Some Programming Notes

I have a review of George Pelecanos‘ new novel, What It Was, at Washington City Paper. I had the rare luxury of an extended word count, so I tried to riff a little about how the new book (much like his last novel, The Cut) cultivates a more optimistic tone than his earlier crime novels. Snippet:

He hasn’t written a book fully set in the ‘70s since his 1997 breakthrough, King Suckerman, and since his 2005 novel, Drama City, he’s been committed to writing about the District as it’s lived in now—the past, when it appears, takes the form of cinematic flashback revealing some old mistake that requires correction. But read The Cut and What It Was alongside each other and it’s clear they actually both go the same way, despite the four-decade distance between their settings. The two novels represent Pelecanos in an increasingly optimistic mode about the District; he’s still fully aware of the city’s flaws, but he’s more interested in sorting out what kind of maturity (and manliness) is necessary to overcome it.

I have a shorter review of Stewart O’Nan’s new novel, The Odds, at the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. It’s not as ambitious as his previous novel, last year’s Emily, Alone, but it’s a fine, slim tale about salvaging a marriage. In an interview with the New Yorker‘s Book Bench blog, O’Nan explained that (spoiler alert) he cut the story short, I think to its benefit: “I was going to follow them home and show how the money doesn’t solve their problems, only prolongs things, the weekend ultimately becoming a painful memory, but then I thought, why not let them have this moment?”

If you’re in New York this weekend, tomorrow night I’ll be participating on a panel at the Center for Fiction about criticism, joined by a group of very smart people. There’ll be two moderators, National Book Critics Circle president Eric Banks and Bookforum editor Michael Miller, and two copanelists whose work I’ve enjoyed, novelist Rivka Galchen and essayist Elif Batuman.

A reminder: Next week I’ll be blogging about Henry Adams‘ 1880 novel Democracy with Jennifer Howard, who’ll be weighing in on her blog. It’ll be fun; hope you can join us.

Last of the Summer Reading

Four books I’ve reviewed in the past month, each recommendable to some degree:

Amy Waldman, The Submission (Minneapolis Star-Tribune): Waldman’s debut has been eagerly covered as a “9/11 novel” because the plot’s driver is a competition for a 9/11 memorial. But the attacks are covered only glancingly here, and The Submission is more a media critique than anything—Waldman is at her best when she focuses on the ways that cable news and partisan newspapers steer public opinion, and the ways that nonpartisan coverage gets manipulated for its own ends.

Steven Millhauser, We Others: New and Selected Stories (Minneapolis Star-Tribune): It’s been a good year for victory-lap short-story collections, including Charles Baxter‘s Gryphon, Edith Pearlman‘s Binocular Vision, and this one from Millhauser. Certain themes emerge when his stories are placed in such close proximity—the uncertainty of childhood, the power magic both real and conjured, the authority of collective voices (“we” is the protagonist in a number of these stories). But it’s his precision that’s most impressive, particularly in “August Eschenberg,” which, fittingly, is about a young man obsessed with clockwork automatons.

Amor Towles, Rules of Civility (AARP.org): Gatsby-esque, as a few critics have said, but not just because it’s about the high life in pre-World War II New York. Like Gatsby, Towles’ debut chronicles one man’s hubris from a certain remove, filtered through an outsider’s impressions. Katey Kontent’s voice emphasizes sass and attitude, and Towles’ plot always seems to be busily up to something (now we’re skeet shooting with the gentry! now we’re launching a dishy magazine! now we’re changing the subject when somebody mentions the Anschluss!). But when Towles lets Katey stop and breathe a little, she’s a fine observer of the ways that money, or the need to accrue lots of it, shade character.

George Pelecanos, The Cut (Barnes & Noble Review): Following a string of standalone novels that have ranged from excellent (2006’s The Night Gardener) to rote (2009’s The Way Home), The Cut reads like Pelecanos has finally found a comfortable groove. In Spero Lucas he has a young PI he can work with for a while, and he allows himself more room to discuss how Washington, D.C., has changed since he began chronicling the city in the early 90s. (Though as USA Today reports, his next novel is set in 1972.)

Failed State

The Daily Caller brings word that Christopher Hitchens has an article in the latest issue of City Journal bemoaning the lack of a great novel set in Washington, D.C. (The Daily Caller piece recommends William Peter Blatty‘s The Exorcist as a candidate, due to its thread of noble humanism, before the author equates pro-choice advocates with angry demons that require exorcising. Writing a great Washington novel requires getting one’s head around that kind of logic, which may help explain why the job is so difficult.) The City Journal article isn’t online, but Hitchens has registered this complaint before. Writing in the Washington Post in 1989, he held his nose while reading Allen Drury‘s Advise and Consent and damned the whole genre:

Verisimilitude…is probably not worth having. It is best to treat Washington as an idea rather than a place. In different ways, authors as various as Richard Condon and Christopher Buckley have written successful and enjoyable novels by getting this point and opting for the willing suspension of disbelief. Jeffrey Archer, who can’t write, has at least tried the same tactic, though he sets too much store by “researched” descriptions of situation rooms, Pentagon offices and other arcana. Paragraphs that tell you the exact time that so-and-so stepped out of a Foggy Bottom elevator belong in pulp journalism not pulp fiction.

In 1995 he was at it again, demolishing Charles McCarry‘s Shelley’s Heart by riffing on the Washington novel’s flaws: “Most ‘Washington novels’ still have the same cast: a President (inescapable), a British ambassador, a prominent hostess, a lobbyist or journalist, and a senator…. [S]enators have ‘manes,’ rooms are filled with smoke, party allegiances are strong and distinct, regional characteristics are heavily stressed among members of Congress, and newspapers are ruthlessly committed to breaking stories at any cost.”

Clearly Hitchens hasn’t found any worthy candidates in the 15 years since his New York Review of Books piece, and he’s not alone in his frustration, though a few candidates have cropped up. I’d be interested to see if he’s spent any time with Ward Just‘s Echo House, a George Pelecanos novel or two, or even Frederick Reussrecent A Geography of Secrets. I’ll update once I get my hands on a copy of the City Journal article. Of course, I welcome recommendations in the comments of worthy D.C. novels, or thoughts about what such a book requires to be “great.”

Links: Kitchen Duty

Saul Bellow: “We all carry the same load of unwashed plates from life’s banquet.” His widow, Janis Bellow: “It wasn’t just the 80-year-old elder statesman who gave ‘em what for, but also the young man who didn’t hesitate to tell a publisher, “If that’s all you got from reading The Adventures of Augie March I don’t want you even looking at my next book and I’ll go elsewhere.”

Lorin Stein recently spoke about literature at Yale, inspiring bright young minds: “I want to be a writer and my first reaction was, ‘Wow, I need to pick up a book that’s not a textbook from Yale,'” reported one attendee.

I wished that Edwidge Danticat‘s new book of essays, Create Dangerously, felt less like a grab bag, but Scott McLemee finds a connecting thread: “Some of the pieces are personal essays; others are critical reflections on the work of Haitian writers and artists who worked as emigrants. The difference in focus does not involve a difference in tone, however. In either genre, Danticat registers an acute awareness that dislocation or relocation are, after all, common experiences.”

Toni Morrison receives the French Legion of Honor award.

Essays From the Nick of Time, a collection of nonfiction pieces by Mark Slouka, is one of my favorite books of 2010. Though his interview with the Rumpus is mostly focused on politics, he does discuss wearing two hats as an essayist and a fiction writer: “I can’t tell you anything about myself—why I got married, what I had for breakfast this morning—that isn’t a story. So, aside from certain conventions of voice, a certain stance toward ‘fact,’ I’m not sure the line exists. One side bleeds into the other all the time.” (I’ve read none of Slouka’s fiction; recommendations welcome.)

Dennis Lehane in the Wall Street Journal: “If I have to be labelled, I want to say my books are about the ethos of a city. I’m not a mystery novelist, I’m definitely not a literary novelist. I think I’m kind of an urban novelist.” (Buried in the story is the news that he’s writing an HBO movie with fellow Wire writer George Pelecanos.)

John Irving on critics: “Many practicing critics don’t write novels; I’ve written 12. What can someone who hasn’t written one novel—or has possibly written a couple of mediocre novels—teach me about my writing? Nothing. I will keep saying this till the day I die: when you’ve written a number of novels, the process of being reviewed is often an exercise in being condescended to by your inferiors.” If only the point of book reviewing were to teach John Irving something about writing…

Rereading

For reasons that’ll be clear in a few days, I’ve been spending some time thinking about my rereading habits—or lack thereof. If I’m not reading something I’m reviewing (which is how I spend about half my reading time), I tend to reach for something brand-new to me. Seems like the responsible thing to do. Better I consume the mediocre-but-buzzed-about new novel I’m plodding through now than take another pass at, oh, Light in August. At least the new novel is teaching me something, even if what it’s mostly teaching me is what sort of things get buzz these days; going back to William Faulkner means actively closing myself off from something new, and (worse) it also means I run the risk of coming away from the book less impressed than I was with it at 25.

I’m not alone in feeling this particular low-level anxiety. David Gates summed up the rereader’s mindset pretty well last year in Newsweek. But his enthusiasm for rereading largely involves an eagerness to experience particular characters again, an attitude I find a little baffling—it sounds a little too much like you’re all excited about hanging out with your imaginary friend. Rereading mainly seems appealing to me if it offers some kind of window into a writer’s process. About a year and a half ago I spent some time reading or rereading George Pelecanos‘ novels with the intention of locating some of his tics when it comes to writing about Washington, D.C.. The piece is a little tongue-in-cheek, and it’s probably not the way he’d prefer his books be read, but it didn’t make me any less of a fan of his; he’s not a worse writer for having a few habits, and I wasn’t worse off for discovering a few of them.

I don’t tend to throw questions directly to readers—I don’t have the “online community manager” gene, and I fear that such appeals come off as a little needy and manipulative. But there’s a first time for everything, and seeing as I’m not sure when I’ll have another opportunity to post at length, now is as good a time as any to invite the commentariat to weigh in. What prompts you to reread, and what do you tend to reach for when you do?

Links: Mall Rats

Allen Drury‘s Advise and Consent, the quintessential big book about Washington power players, turns 50.

Lorrie Moore: “I don’t feel I’m a natural writer. I feel every paragraph I write stinks. But I’m a pretty good editor. I’m not that fluid in getting the sentences out right the first time. There are times when you lose confidence. There are scenes that are hard to write. So I make changes. I am still making changes.”

Audrey Niffenegger recalls her early days in Chicago’s art scene.

Henry Louis Gates recently handed out the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards, which are given to best books about race in the past year. Among the winners is Louise Erdrich, for The Plague of Doves.

New York magazine talks with Jonathan Ames. “Bored to Death,” the lead story in his new collection, The Double Life Is Twice as Good, is a genius riff on noir themes matched with Ames’ traditional acts of self-flagellation.

Serpent’s Tail Press (which has published some of my favorite David Goodis noirs) is launching a classics series. It’s an interesting take on classics: Among the first batch of reprints are Lionel Shriver‘s We Need to Talk About Kevin and George PelecanosShoedog.

An excerpt from Raymond Carver‘s “Beginners,” included in Library of America’s new Carver collection.

Carver’s widow, Tess Gallagher, has a new story collection, The Man From Kinvara.

A chat with the head of the Kurt Vonnegut Society in San Francisco.

Tortilla Flat is a good name for a John Steinbeck novel, but a bad name for a Southern California sports bar.

And a Thomas Pynchon scholar picks precisely the wrong guy with whom to cop attitude about television.

Reading With the President

The White House announced today that President Barack Obama is bringing a handful of novels with him during his weeklong vacation, including Richard Price‘s Lush Life, Kent Haruf‘s Plainsong, and George Pelecanos The Way Home. (He’s also bringing a couple of “serious” books.) All fine selections, and though I’d like to hear what he thinks of the books overall when he’s done with them, I’m also curious to learn what he thinks of this particular passage from Lush Life, in which Matty, a homicide detective, finds his plans to recanvass a neighborhood where a murder has occurred have been derailed thanks to a surprise visitor…

“Matty.” Yolonda holding up the phone. “Dargan from Berkowitz.”

Matty braced. Detective Dargan, Deputy Inspector Berkowitz’s Bad News Bear. “Hey, Jerry.”

“Yeah, hey, Matty, look, we just got word, the president’s coming into town tonight instead of tomorrow.”

“OK.” Matty waited for the other shoe.

“So, we’re going to need to postpone your recanvass.”

“What?” Matty tried to come off stunned. “Why?”

“The word from on high is to pull manpower from all units, including yours. No excusals.”

“Are you fucking kidding me? I spent the last two days lining everybody up for this. You couldn’t have told me earlier?”

“We just found out ourselves.”

“How the fuck can you not know the president’s coming in until the day?”

“Hey,” Dargan said calmly, “I have nothing to do with this. I’m just the messenger.”

Fucking Berkowitz.

“Is he in? Let me talk to him.”

“Not a good idea,” Dargan said mournfully.

“And you’re taking people from my squad? It’s a seventh-day homicide recanvass. You can’t take my people.”

“No excusals,” Dargan said. “Sorry.”

“This fucking sucks. Let me talk to him.”

“Not a good idea … And Matty? Truly … Let it be.”

As he slammed the phone down, Yolonda snapped off her cell. “They’re pulling me and Iacone,” she said. “You know something? I don’t think I’ve ever been inside the Waldorf.”