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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.
This is unquestionably a good thing: If he’s abandoned the longueurs about whiskey and Dischord bands, it’s in favor of sentences that say the most in the least amount of time. Whole paragraphs in Pelecanos’ early novels strut to show how busy they’re looking; in The Turnaround, every line behaves like there’s serious work to do.
For the crime-fiction fan, this ethos makes The Turnaround one of the tightest stories he’s devised, involving in the merging fates of Alex Pappas, a Greek owner of a Dupont Circle diner who participated in a lunkheaded racist prank north of the District line in 1972, and Raymond Monroe, one of the residents of the black neighborhood where the incident took place. (The title couldn’t make it more clear that this is a redemption tale, though it also refers to the dead end where both characters’ lives changed.) But Pelecanos’ gut rehab job on his own prose also exposes his most enduring concerns about the District. What’s left now is a handful of support beams—crime, race, ethnicity, manliness, redemption—girded by details about music, cars, and insiders-only landmarks.
Plenty of details, even still. However straightforward The Turnaround might be, it’s packed with bits of speech, people, places, and settings that are unique to Pelecanos—tics that expose his particular take on the District.
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.
America Eats Its Young: 1972 album by Parliament-Funkadelic whose title serves as something of a motto for Pelecanos’ late-period work. D.C.’s “real crime,” after all, is that “American children were undernourished, criminally undereducated, and living in a viper’s nest of drugs, violence, and despair within a mile of the Capitol dome.” The album speaks to the issue of black empowerment, which in Pelecanos’ work is best discussed in RECORD STORES. “Black artists making a mark in this country, and not just on record covers,” explains one character in The Turnaround, holding up the LP in a shop.
Baltimore: Cryptic metropolis north of D.C., notable only as the repository of Camden Yards, the Baltimore Bullets before their move to D.C., and closed-mouthed hitmen, like the two who pay a visit in the late stages of The Turnaround: “They had been here since sundown and were unhappy about it. Neither of them had any love for Washington, D.C.” Still, Pelecanos occasionally betrays a grudging affection for Charm City, an emotion that’s absent when it comes to VIRGINIA.
Basketball: Metaphorical stand-in for larger issues of race relations, especially as a useful way to connect characters of different races. (As distinct from groups of whites, who largely discuss baseball or hockey, and groups of blacks, who typically talk about football.) Homemade Clyde Frazier and Earl Monroe jerseys, worn by two black characters, play a small but critical role in The Turnaround. Those jerseys appear in 1972, 14 years before basketball breaks D.C.’s heart with the death of Maryland basketball star Len Bias, as noted in 1998’s The Sweet Forever.
Cars: Class identifiers and gauges of masculinity. Rare is the Pelecanos character who isn’t introduced alongside a description of his or her ride. Vintage cars can speak to authenticity or vanity, but any person who knows how to repair them is, essentially, a saint, like The Turnaround’s James Monroe, a mechanic who’s abused by his boss but diligently labors over his cars. As he tells his roommate, “I go to work every day and I’m glad to have it. Happy to rent this apartment that I can walk out of any time I please.”
Cop Shows: Episodic TELEVISION programs that present unrealistic visions of American life. Many late-period Pelecanos novels feature a paragraph or two indicting cop shows for various inaccuracies; in The Turnaround the lecture indicts the shows for doing nothing less than warping America’s social fabric. James Monroe recalls reading a book in prison that describes them as a “fascistic genre.” “The shows were warning the citizens, in effect, to stay in line.…These television writers were just making money by feeding citizens the lies they craved.”
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Diners: Restaurants, almost invariably run by GREEKS, that regularly serve food and coffee to their patrons and big helpings of self-esteem to their employees. Indeed, the Pappas and Sons Coffee Shop, the Dupont Circle joint that figures hugely in The Turnaround, is “sacred.” Pelecanos’ heroes have been redeeming themselves in diners since the 1950s (as depicted in 1996’s The Big Blowdown). Anybody who puts in an honest day’s work at a diner is a hero, though the owners commit tax fraud on a daily basis by closing the register at 3 p.m. and taking any further revenues under the table. Also a prime spot for “I DON’T CARE” EXCHANGES.
Gaye, Marvin: Only worthwhile artist ever to perform for the Motown label. “Nothin’ but soul music for white people,” explains Derek Strange in 2002’s Right as Rain. “Nothin’ but soul music for white people,” concurs Derek Strange in 2004’s Hard Revolution. Not coincidentally, Gaye spent part of his childhood in D.C.
Gentrification: Redevelopment process that allows Washingtonians to grouse about how things used to be. Though Pelecanos never dismisses it as pure evil—he calls it a “closed-mouth kiss” in 2003’s Soul Circus—any discussion of it is wedded to a character’s complaint about the displacement it creates in predominantly black communities. Turnaround bad guy Charles Baker notes the crowds of white people passing Cardozo High School: “They don’t even know where they at or what can happen to ’em. Walking all confident and shit. They think they gonna take over our city.”
Go-Go: Homegrown genre of music usually mentioned only in passing in Pelecanos novels, given that it’s usually enjoyed only by secondary characters. (Pelecanos’ heroes tend toward vintage soul or contemporary rock.) A pair of young pot dealers in The Turnaround are big on “TCB, 3D, Reaction, CCB, Backyard, and other local go-go bands, and rap, if it got combined with go-go, like with that dude Wale.” Notable also as a victim of GENTRIFICATION, as noted in 2000’s Shame the Devil: “Every time someone gets shot within a hundred yards of a go-go concert, the Post dredges up their old warhorse about how the music is related to violence. Getting the public all paranoid about go-go, it’s ridiculous. For what? So they can make a case for taking away the one thing the young people of this city can still call their own?”
Greeks: Blunt instruments in Pelecanos’ long-running effort to make clear that immigrant groups don’t move in lockstep but have their own internal class distinctions. Though Greeks rarely stray far from DINERS in his books, his novels routinely establish where they rest on the class ladder: In The Turnaround Alex Pappas acknowledges that he can’t match up with a high-class Greek restarauteur, Blackie Auger: “Alex’s family attended ‘the immigrant church’ on 16th Street while Auger and others of his standing were members of the ‘uptown’ cathedral at 36th and Mass.”
Homosexuality: Quite often, bad news. Gay men are corpses in 1993’s Nick’s Trip and 2006’s The Night Gardener, which wrestles with the unique concerns of young gay black men, while homosexual bad guys populate 1997’s King Suckerman and The Turnaround. The latter novel’s Charles Baker makes his viciousness clear not just by grousing about GENTRIFICATION but by aggressively threatening to rape a male drug dealer.
“I Don’t Care” Exchanges: Conversations about music engineered to provide comic relief and expose character distinctions. From The Turnaround: “This is Thievery Corporation, Dad.” “I don’t care if it’s General Motors and IBM combined. We sell food here, not tabs of X.” From The Night Gardener: “That’s Bettye Swann…Brenda Holloway did that song that Blood, Sweat and Tears made famous.” “I don’t care if she did one for Pacific Gas and Electric. This is Brenda singin’ right here.” From The Sweet Forever: “I believe it’s the Blue Nile. A Walk Across the Rooftops.” “I don’t care what it is.”
Montgomery County: With the exception of pockets of Silver Spring, repository of ignorant liberalism and ill-disguised racism. The fallout of The Turnaround’s central incident—a murder resulting from three white MoCo kids antagonistically entering a black MoCo neighborhood—results in long prison sentences for the black men and a white judge’s complaint about “racial nonsense” in his hometown of Bethesda. Such depictions of MoCo hypocrisy are bolted into Pelecanos’ recent work, especially The Night Gardener, in which a “good” Silver Spring high school proves ill-fitting and oppressive to a half-black young man. For MoCo whites, racial conflicts “are the stuff of slow head shakes and momentary concern between the serving of the roast beef and the pour of the second glass of cabernet.”
Novelists: Noble souls whose efforts invariably produce a better citizenry. Rare is the Pelecanos book that doesn’t name-check a couple of novelists, typically crime writers: Alex Pappas, for instance, works his way into adulthood by devouring pulp master John D. MacDonald. Other writers mentioned approvingly in earlier novels: Edward Anderson, A.I. Bezzerides, Donald Goines, Chester Himes, Gary Phillips, David Goodis, Jim Thompson. One William C. Cooper, a clear stand-in for Edward P. Jones (who Pelecanos has called “the finest fiction writer to ever come out of Washington, D.C.”) appears in 1995’s Down by the River Where the Dead Men Go.
Real Washingtonians: People capable of discussing obscure area landmarks older than 10 years. Real Washingtonians caught Liz Taylor double bills at the Loews Palace on F Street in 1971, miss the old 9:30 Club, can’t refuse a half-smoke from Ben’s Chili Bowl, and rented new releases at Erol’s. Because of this, real Washingtonians have a hard time avoiding arguments about GENTRIFICATION but are more likely to give in to nostalgia—in the case of The Turnaround, tributes to long-time local soul DJ Bobby “the Mighty Burner” Bennett, who spins today on XM Satellite Radio.
Record Stores: Socio-economic Switzerlands where characters can enjoy a freedom from race and class disputes that are impossible to avoid outside their doors. As popular as DINERS in Pelecanos’ early novels, they only now make rare appearances, replaced in The Turnaround with many references to satellite radio, which offers hundreds of channels but is best appreciated as the home for old-school soul DJs from D.C. who would otherwise be out of work.
Television: Visual medium favored by the criminal and the lazy. Pelecanos’ contempt for TV viewers started early, as his heroes mocked customers at appliance store Nutty Nathan’s for fussing over their TVs and indicted the store itself, a bait-and-switch shop, for selling them. We know that Richard Tutt, the corrupt cop in 1998’s The Sweet Forever, is a bad guy because he tunes in to The Facts of Life “to see if the girls had grown any more tit since the last time he watched.” Raymond Monroe ponders the evils of COP SHOWS in The Turnaround.
Virginia: A mysterious land to the west and south of D.C., rarely explored, except as a place to pick up a gun that can be brought illegally into the District; dismissed in Shame the Devil as home to “suburbanites who made their living in town but paid no commuter taxes.” Threatened to be removed off the map entirely in the wake of the Supreme Court’s recent reversal of D.C.’s gun ban.
War: Hell but edifying. Pelecanos first delved into the subject in The Big Blowdown, in which hero Peter Karras proves his character in the Philippines during World War II. The Turnaround evades the politics of the War on Terror and sticks with portraits of soldiers recovering from injuries at Walter Reed. Alex Pappas lost a son in Iraq and Raymond Monroe, a Walter Reed staffer, has a son in Afghanistan, giving both an opportunity to complain about the Pulitzer-winning series in the WASHINGTON POST about the poor conditions at the military hospital. “The reporters, it wouldn’t have hurt if they had done one more article, talking about the good,” Monroe says.
Washington City Paper: Local alternative weekly of passable utility to District residents. In A Firing Offense, Nick Stefanos skips the “customarily unfocused cover story” in favor of the arts reviews; characters in Right as Rain and The Night Gardener, however, find the paper’s lengthy cover stories useful while researching old crimes.
Washington Post: Local newspaper that betrays its institutionalized racism on a daily basis by relegating stories about murdered black men to briefs on its inside pages. Rare is the Pelecanos novel that fails to take a moment to mention that these stories are referred to by Washingtonians as “the Roundup” or “Violent Negro Deaths.” The Post Magazine recently ran a nearly 8,000-word profile of Pelecanos, never mentioning this, one of the most common elements of his books.
Pelecanos discusses and signs copies of his work at 7 p.m., August 12, at Politics and Prose, 5015 Connecticut Ave. NW. Free. (202) 364-1919. And at 7:30 p.m., August 14, at Borders, 5871 Crossroads Center Way, Baileys Crossroads, Va. Free. (703) 998-0404.