City Paper is not for tourists
For a man on his way to a murder scene, George Pelecanos is in a damn good mood. Like any car freak, he can’t help but dig being behind the wheel, especially for a ride into D.C. And it’s a nice summer Saturday in Washingtona merciful breeze blowing in from God knows whereas he shifts gears on his 13-year-old, maroon-with-bone-interior BMW 528. Pelecanos cruises contentedly down Georgia Avenue just south of the District line. “I just like driving around the city,” he says in his unassuming deadpan. “I drive into neighborhoods I don’t know anything about, just to check ’em out. There’s still a lot of the city that I don’t know, especially in Northeast, and that’s the biggest part of town.”
But the area around upper Georgia Avenuethe Shepherd Park neighborhood and downtown Silver Springhas been Pelecanos’ stomping grounds for all his 41 years; he’s never lived anywhere else. He nods toward an art deco neon sign, Morris Miller, a dull, unplugged red in the bright noon glare. The longtime booze emporiumas big and airy as an auto showroomboasts just about every brand of alcohol known to man.
“That’s my liquor store,” he says. “We used to go there when I was a teenager. We had to go across the line to buy beer, ’cause in D.C. the drinking age was 18. We’d drink in the parking lot and decide what we wanted to do that night.”
In Pelecanos’ version of the District, Morris Miller is a landmark more essential to the cityscape than the Washington Monument. It has received the ultimate blessing Pelecanos can give: He has put it in his books.
Though Pelecanos has driven barely a mile from his Silver Spring bungalow, he’s already in another world. After all these years, he still can identify with the adolescent who used to day-trip into the city, a tougher but no less enthralled cousin of the wide-eyed suburban teen described in Pelecanos’ 1997 homage to his wonder years, King Suckerman: “[His] infrequent trips into D.C. always made Jimmy’s pulse race, partly from the thrill of the new and partly from fear. Whatever the reason, he liked the way driving into the city made him feel.”
His eyes roving, Pelecanos passes pawnbrokers, Caribbean nightclubs, wig shops, Chinese carryouts, and car washes; then residential stretches of old brick apartment houses and awning-shrouded row houses that resemble funeral homes and funeral homes that resemble Southern mansionsalways the grandest residences on the block. Mostly there are the usual joints where you can get your checks cashed and your food deep-fried and your fingernails painted the colors of a rainbow doused in a curbside oil slick.
Vintage ’70s funkCurtis Mayfield, Earth, Wind & Fire, Average White Bandpours from the tape deck. The music of his youth, it remains close at hand. He still listens to the area’s remaining soul stations, WPGC and WHUR, even though they’ve long been known as urban contemporary and are about as funky as Vanilla Ice. But Pelecanos’ stubborn D.C. brand loyalty keeps him stuckthat and the fact that he’s an old-school romantic who’s been with his wife Emily for two decades. “There’s nothing better than driving around on a summer night with your woman next to you, with the moon roof down and listening to HUR, listening to the Quiet Storm. I’m telling you, man, there’s nothing better than that, and that’s totally D.C.”
Turning off Georgia Avenue, Pelecanos heads down 14th Street NW, past a cleaners at Colorado, where his father once worked a half-century ago, when it was a pharmacy. Then he takes a right on Arkansas and steers the car down into the rabbit-hole entrance of Rock Creek Park, the same route he takes to his day job as an independent film producer in the West End. Movies have always been his first love, and they’re what pay the bills. But, more and more, writing is what defines George Pelecanos. Writing about D.C.
On a pleasant day like this, driving the parkway is a real joy ride, like taking a tunnel carved into a giant bouquet of green. “There’s a lot of beauty here,” he says. “I always tell people from out of town, ’til I bore ’em to death, that there’s no other city in the world like this, where you’ve got this huge park going through the entire city. You can get lost in these woods, man. You don’t even know you’re in a city anymore.”
The parkway spills out behind the Kennedy Center, and Pelecanos takes the riverside curves fast and then weaves through the maze of monuments and green parks, where tourists swarm and weekenders play volleyball. This is all that most visitors see as worthy in the nation’s capital, having been fed a steady diet of negative headlines about the rest of the city. “I just get tired of hearing all the negative shit about Washington from people that don’t know,” he says.
He turns onto the Southeast-Southwest Freeway, where a compact car swerves wildly between several lanes, and finally ends up trapped at the split, stopped near the guard rail that separates the two exits. Sporting Virginia plates and flashers blinking in full panic mode, the car sits in a no man’s land. The stranded motorist doesn’t want to end up on the Wrong Side of Town. “This guy’s scared to death,” says Pelecanos, chuckling. “Look at him. He doesn’t want to go to Anacostia.”
Pelecanos has little sympathy for such people. Anacostia is as much a part of Pelecanos’ D.C. as the monuments framed in his rearview mirror. In fact, he says the place in D.C. that gives him the creeps is Georgetown, which he tries to avoid at all costs.
Pelecanos takes the exit for the Southeast Freeway, then he pulls off at the 8th Street ramp. He turns down M Street and goes by the Navy Yard, quiet on this weekend afternoon. After a while, and without much warning, M Street curls into a winding, tree-choked country road, a strip of hot, faded tar that parallels some railroad tracks and the Anacostia River. Pelecanos passes the Stewart Petroleum gasworks complex. A lone hard-hatted employee lingers at the chain-link fence; watching the car go by, he resembles some rural porch-sitter who hasn’t seen anyone for weeks. Pelecanos pulls the car up to a gravel parking lot near the water’s edge and kills the engine.
It’s deadly quiet, except for the distant hum of indistinguishable traffic from the 11th Street Bridge above. Jogging distance from the U.S. Capitol, the forlorn shore is a ruin of malt liquor bottles, used condoms, and anything else that can be tossed from the window of a moving car. The water lapping against the concrete abutment is a brackish, scum soupno sign of life. If Rock Creek Park is the city’s crown jewel, the cradle of nature’s bounty, this is the capital’s outdoor sewer, a skanky terminus where everything comes to rot and die.
It’s the sort of shitpile that provides fertile turf for the fiction of George Pelecanos. This is the setting for the murder that opens his 1995 novel, Down by the River Where the Dead Men Go. Protagonist Nick Stefanos, a full-time bartender and part-time private investigator, has gotten drunk after closing up at the Spot, his watering hole over at 8th and G SE. Plagued by intermittent blackouts, he takes his Dodge Coronet 500 on a precarious ride that starts with him blasting Minor Threat along Independence Avenue and finishes dangerously close to the river’s edge. “This is where he ends up driving that night,” says Pelecanos. “And you can imagine being out here at nightone moment you’re in the city, and the next….”
The car went slowly down a single lane, asphalt road. Trees on both sides of the road. To the right, through the trees, colored lights reflected off the water. No music now in the car. The surge of laughter far away, and trebly slide guitar from a radio…
As Pelecanos writes it, the car finally rolls to a stop in some trees, and Stefanos manages to crawl out like some wounded beast. Lying in the trash and his own vomit, bugs all over him, he passes out. Sometime before dawn, he is awakened, but all he can do is lie in the darkness and listen:
The slam of a car door. The sound of something dragged through gravel and dirt. A steady, frantic moan.
The voice of a black man: “All right now. You already been a punk and shit. Least you can do is go out a man.”
The moan now a muffled scream. Can’t move, can’t even raise my head. A dull plopping sound then a quiet splash.
The black man’s voice: “Just leave him?”
Another voice, different inflection: “Kill a coon in this town and it barely makes the papersno offense, you know what I mean. C’mon, let’s get outta here.”
Tough and spare, this is the sort of hard-boiled writing that Pelecanos has become known for. To the point and no showboating in either style or contentin this instance, just the off-camera execution, punctuated by a killer’s dead-on commentary about the local media. Many a crime writer would knock off right there, leave the scene and start fresh in a new chapter featuring coffee and a quandary. But this is just when Pelecanos gets going. He wants you to see what has happened in the darkness down by the water, to rub your face in its squalor. The next morning, Nick stumbles to the shoreline, where he finds something bobbing next to a half-sunken, decaying houseboat:
A young black man lay in the water, his head and shoulders submerged, the shirtsleeve of one bound arm caught on a cleat in the piling. Duct tape had been wound around his gray face, covering his mouth. I could see an entry wound, small and purple, rimmed and burned black, below his chin. The bullet had traveled up and blown out the back of his head; brain stew, pink and chunked, had splashed out onto the piling. The gas jolt had bugged his eyes.
Down by the River is the thirdand so far, the lastbook in the Nick Stefanos series. The thing about Nick, see, is that he’s helluva nice guy, a good bartender and decent enough PI, but he’s a drunk and an overall fuckup, and Pelecanos just got tired of him. Since then, he has written three more novels set in Washington, ranging from a blaxploitation thriller, King Suckerman, to a sprawling period piece about D.C. in the ’30s and ’40s, The Big Blowdown. All have garnered rave reviews and minuscule sales, the booby prizes of the cult author. He has been more popular with critics in England and prisoners in Lorton than with the mainstream reading public. As far as reaching a mass audience is concerned, he might as well have dropped the books into the Anacostia next to the duct-taped floater.
Significant signs that Pelecanos’ luck may be changing, however, have begun to surface. Puff Daddy has bought the rights to King Suckerman, and the multiplatinum rapper plans to star in a film version slated for release next summer. Pelecanos is writing the screenplaya dream job for a movie junkie whose seminal adolescent experience was catching the D.C. premiere of Shaft at the Town Theater. More important to him, Suckerman has been issued as a mass-market paperback, so it now sits stacked in grocery stores next to the latest Dean Koontz. Meanwhile, his other books are being rescued from obscurity. The French publisher Gallimard has added Shoedog, his 1994 take on the hard-boiled pulp tradition, to its prestigious catalog of modern American noir fiction. His other titles, including the Stefanos trilogy, have appeared as part of Serpent’s Tail Mask Noir series in England. His latest, The Sweet Forever, is garnering more good press. Another departure from his mystery/detective beginnings, it centers on 1986, the year when Mayor Barry’s home rule started to crack up and crack hit D.C.
After nearly a decade of writing for a few thousand devotees, the self-taught author is about to learn something about celebrity. In its August issue, British GQ goes all the way, knighting him “the coolest writer in America.” Not bad for a former stereo, appliance, and shoe salesman who was in his 30s before he tried his hand at novels.
People on the cusp of stardom are prone to saying it won’t change a thing, but when Pelecanos asserts as much, you just don’t feel a reason to doubt him. He revels in his averageness.
“I’m just a Greek boy from D.C., that’s all,” he says. Standing on the concrete abutment, his black Chuck Taylor high-tops poking over the edge, Pelecanos looks out over the dirty water of his hometown and announces his next big career move: “I’m hungry, man,” he says. “Let’s go get some hot dogs at Ben’s Chili Bowl.”
There was a Greek behind the stick with a bar rag tucked into the waistband of his jeans. He was an average-sized guy with an average face, a lean build, deep-set blue eyes, a mustache flecked with gray, and curly hair cropped close to the scalp. I asked him for a bottle of beer and a shot of bottom-shelf bourbon to back it up. He drew the beer and speed-poured the shot. He served both without a word. The Greek put one foot up on the house ice chest, and rubbed his hands dry on the rag.
Self-portrait of Pelecanos as a
The so-called Washington novel boasts a tradition that dates back more than a century. From Henry Adams to Gore Vidal to contemporaries like Ward Just and Charles Carry, all sorts of highbrow authors have taken a shot at creating definitive portrayals of the nation’s capital. For them, the city provides a venue to ponder the Big Themes of American society, democracy and the price of freedom. The subject has always been politics; the scenes embassies, boardrooms, and the Capitol; the protagonists unfailingly the rich and powerful. For an average local reader, the rarefied city of international intrigue described in these works resembles sheer fantasy, and might as well be London or Paris.
It’s as if all the literary tastemakers had made a decree: There are a thousand stories in every naked cityexcept in Washington, that least hard-boiled of towns.
More recently, the District has played a bit role in all sorts of escapist fiction. For years, the hot genre has been the legal thriller. John Grisham’s The Street Lawyer and The Pelican Brief are prime examples: The city of eight wards and myriad neighborhoods is nothing more than a cardboard backdrop for the wheelings and dealings of the elite. When it does make a cameo as a place where people live, Washington is rendered as a caricature. Brad Meltzer’s The Tenth Justice, which has sold 10 million copies, features a Yale Law graduate who comes to town to clerk at the Supreme Court. As he shuffles from his apartment to the Hill, his sole encounter with a local is a telling exchange of hackneyed pantomime: “After a ten minute Metro ride to Dupont Circle, Ben climbed one of Washington’s many oversized escalators and headed home. A block from the subway, he spotted Tough Guy Joey, the neighborhood’s angriest street person. ‘Hey Joey,’ he said. ‘Screw you,’ Joey snapped. ‘Bite me.’”
In popular fiction, that’s what life in Washington means: harried professionals busy running the free world, occasionally having to fend off crazed bums, the stereotypical honorary citizens of the nation’s capital.
When the real city is recognizable in contemporary highbrow fiction, it’s most likely to turn up in works by an outsider like Russian émigré Vassily Askokovich, whose In Search of Melancholy Baby skewers uptight “official” Washington.
Pelecanos has staked a claim to a territory virtually ignored by other fiction writers: a town where regular people make their way, most often oblivious to the shiny federal Disneyland-on-the-Potomac. His books are about people who work, play, and screw up here, locals who have buried their elders here and will themselves die here. One of the few other authors working this turf is Edward P. Jones, another Washington native, whose short-story collection Lost in the City won the coveted Pen/Faulkner award in 1992. Like Pelecanos, Jones focuses on the working class, albeit in a quieter, more “literary” style. (Pelecanos is an admirer of Lost in the City. “The city came alive for me,” he says. “It felt like the city I live in, and nothing else I’ve read does that.”)
In Jones’ finely crafted stories, though, he limits himself strictly to the black experience and doesn’t share Pelecanos’ quest for ultrarealism. He has told interviewers that he purposely avoids using the word “nigger” because it is usedand abusedenough in contemporary society. In comparison, Pelecanos’ work is vulgar and profane, echoing epithets from the streets.
Pelecanos uses a larger canvas, big enough to contain Washington in all its variety. The characters in his novels run the gamut: dishwashers, shoe salesmen, appliance installers, housewives, fast-food cashiers, prostitutes, drug dealers, secretaries, beat cops, small businessmen, drifters. There are blacks and whites and Greeks and Italians and Irish. Pelecanos’ D.C. is off the map in more ways than one, a seedy metropolis that spills over the District line into the adjoining suburbs where he still lives.
Taken together, his booksteeming with a revolving cast of extended, intertwining family treesform a sort of fictional document of 20th-century Washington. Home-grown and native and almost willfully obscure (from barely known street references to name-dropping a Captain Beefheart song), that’s the stuff of Pelecanos’ pulp fiction, violent books that are nonetheless also peppered by odes to the city’s quiet pleasures and its working-class denizens. “It’s an incredible body of work, not just the individual novels, but the thread of the whole thing,” says James Sallis, author of Difficult Lives: Jim Thompson, David Goodis, Chester Himes, an acclaimed study of noir writers. “He really is writing a social history of this one small corner of America. His novels are peopled with the most amazing folkthey’re so alive, so real, and so believableand it’s very, very hard to do that. Very few of us can manage to pull it off.”
Pelecanos doesn’t know where to put that kind of extravagant praise. He says he never set out to chronicle his hometown like some sort of streetwise James Michener. It’s one of those things that just sort of happened as he churned out book after book, now seven in a seven-year stretch. He writes what he knows, that’s all.
In style and approach, Pelecanos fits the tradition of the American primitive. He’s never taken a writing class, he doesn’t outline his books, and he’s never had a case of writer’s block. He had no interest in or understanding of the novel as literature until a college professor introduced him to the works of the classic hard-boiled writers like Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, and their descendants, James Crumley and David Goodis. His main reading remains the genre he used as his model. “He’s probably the least literary writer I know,” says Sallis, a longtime admirer of Pelecanos’ work. “I saw him once on a panel at a mystery convention, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen anybody more out of place….Most of us come up as bookish young men and go on from there, but I’m not sure I know anybody that came up the way he didwhich probably has a lot to say about the way he writes.”
Though he is a fixture of the mystery-bookstore circuit, Pelecanos shares little with most crime writers, bookworms who pen cozies about cats that solve murders. His lack of book learning isn’t something Pelecanos tries to hide; he seems defiantly proud of it. The Publisher’s Weekly review of The Sweet Forever dubbed him “the Zola of Washington,” referring to the 19th-century French realist author who wrote about the underside of Parisian society. It was a favorable review, but the comparison still has him baffled, and he’s not ashamed to admit it. “What does that mean?” he says. “I don’t want to come off like a savage or something, but all I know about Zola is that Paul Muni played him in a movie.”
The characters in Pelecanos’ stories seem to spring whole from the street in part because he began finding them there at a very young age. As a boy, he had a summer job delivering meals on foot for his father’s lunch counter, the Jefferson Coffee Shop, at M and 19th NW. He was fascinated by the everyday scrum of people in downtown D.C.the spectacle of so many unknowable faces and fates hatched elaborate narratives that went far beyond the usual adolescent daydreams. “I’d be running all over town, and to pass the time, I’d start making up storiesnot just a story for that day, but like a serial,” he says. “I thought I was making movies, but really I was writing books in my head.”
But books didn’t grab him as a kid; it was movies that owned his imagination. The films he saw as a boyepic, gritty men’s flicks like The Dirty Dozen, The Great Escape, and The Wild Bunchremain his all-time favorites to this day. The son of a Marine, he dug the violence, and he also got hooked on themes of male camaraderie and loyalty, professionalism under pressure, and eternal martial motifs. At age 8, he had already authored a book, scribbled in a school notepad and featuring illustrations, titled The Two Wars of Lt. Jeremy. But the literary itch didn’t stick. It would be more than two decades before he tried his hand at fiction again.
The summer after the ’68 riots, Pelecanos rode a bus into the District daily from Silver Spring, where his family had moved a few years before. He noticed changes in the way blacks walked, the way they behaved and gestureda newfound public pride and confidence. Though he was barely 10, this transformation struck him profoundly. “I look at the riots as a cleansing, something that was necessary to happen, part of the city’s evolution,” he says. “That summer, I could see that people were different. Their postures were different; there was no more subservience. It was like, ‘Now everything’s changedit’s gonna be different. You might not like it, but it’s going to be different from now on.’”
In 1971, Pelecanos went to a screening of the now-classic blaxploitation flick Shaft at the Town Theater, a now-defunct movie palace at 13th and New York NW in downtown D.C. It was an eye-opening experience for the youngster. Accompanied by his dad, Pelecanos saw the revolution both on the big screen and in the theater itself: “The capacity audience that day was loud, gleeful, unruly, and almost entirely black,” he wrote in an appreciation for AXCESS magazine. “I could sense that my father was a little uncomfortable. I was stoked….That old back-of-the-bus bullshit was gone forever.” This was the same movie house where he’d seen The Dirty Dozen a few years before, and now here was a black film for a black audience, and even before the show began, girls were dancing in the aisles.
“Before the riots, you never had a movie like that,” says Pelecanos. “When I was younger, I had seen The Defiant Ones, and I could never understand why Sidney Poitier reached out to him at the end. You know, he was on that train and Tony Curtis was running after him, and then there’s this shot of the black hand and the white hand reaching out. I mean, c’mon, man, Tony Curtis was a racist motherfuckerwhy did Poitier reach out to him? He shouldn’t have, you know. Up until Shaft, racial stuff was all sentimentalized like that. Shaft was the first movie to have a black protagonist with an attitude.”
Pelecanos generated his share of attitude as a teen, shoplifting and vandalizing and getting high and getting drunkdoing just about anything he could to get the cops to chase him. His buddies took part in the hi-jinks, and his best friends even today are the same group he first met in elementary school. “I’m no different than any of these guys I grew up with,” he says. “We all pulled the same shit together.”
One mishap went beyond the usual teen prank and informs the violence of his work. When he was 16, he accidentally shot a buddy in the face with his dad’s pistol. Though the friend recovered, Pelecanos doesn’t talk about the incident except to say, “In my books, I want to show the damage that guns actually do to people.” The gunplay in his books is not slicked up and glamorized, but instead described with clinical precision, particularly the resulting carnage: “Murphy dropped into Tyrell’s chair. He looked down. His left arm was lobster meat, shredded and red and slick, gone below the bicep. Blood flowed freely into his lap.”
Pelecanos eventually recovered as well from the near-tragedy, enough to squeeze in his share of living. Movies and music were the thing, and everything was all mixed up in the best way possible. In those heady days, Elton John’s “Bennie and the Jets” was the No. 1 song on soul stations all over D.C., and Pelecanos attended the legendary Parliament Funkadelic concert at the Capital Center, when the mothership landed. Mostly, Pelecanos got high and listened to Robin Trower and Blue Oyster Cult and the Isley Brothers and Curtis Mayfield, who became his hero.
For Pelecanos, the good vibes all came to a head at the Bicentennial celebration in the summer of ’76. Earlier that year, he had had to drop out during his freshman year at University of Maryland after his dad had a heart attack. He ran the coffee shop downtown and had such a good time he didn’t know if he was ever going back to school. He didn’t miss campus life, that’s for sure: He had his beloved ’70 Camaro (“springtime gold with a saddle interior”) and all the fun any kid could want. On the Fourth of July, he and his buddies hung out and partied all night long on the Mall, along with more than a million other revelers who jammed the city to celebrate.
In King Suckerman, the big street bash becomes a farewell party to the good times, both for the protagonists and for Washington. The massive fireworks display provides the perfect cover for a rooftop shootout; it ends with a pile of corpses and the death scene of a young ‘Bama up from North Carolina, who stumbles mortally wounded into the crowd enjoying the festivities from the city’s best vantage point, Meridian Hill Park:
There were people everywhere in the park, laughing, clapping, talking loud, like this was the party they had been waiting for all their lives. The rockets above exploded without a break now, brightening the park with sunlight intensity. The faces of the people were unfamiliar, distorted in the colored light.
Ronald thought if he could get someplace quiet, a country kind of place, it would be all right.
He stumbled onto a concrete stairway, passing a group of people sitting on a statue.
“That nigger’s drunk as a white boy,” said a man, but when Ronald turned to look at him the man was just a dark face in a crowd of many dark faces, none of them friendly or warm….Not here, Lord. Please, not here in front of all these strangers. I’m too far from home.
The violence in King Suckerman is among the most graphic to appear in a Pelecanos bookwhich is saying a lot. (In fact, an NPR interview was nixed after it was decided his novels were too gory; on the Sweet Forever publicity tour, though, he was welcomed on Terry Gross’ Fresh Air show.) More than any of his books, he says, King Suckerman, despite its obvious affection for the music and movies of the era, is intended as a cautionary tale. The characters are enraptured by the blaxploitation flicks that rule the day, and they act out movie roles in dangerous ways. The novel’s epigraph (“In these city streetsEverywhere/You got to be careful/Where you move your feet, and how you part your hair”) reveals how menacing the streets had become; it is lyrics from a mid-’70s Curtis Mayfield song, when the singer was expressing regret at the influence his Superfly soundtrack had, making gangsters and pimps seem cool to the youth.
At the same time, Suckerman is a celebration of a bygone era, a paean to the city’sand Pelecanos’lost innocence. Even more, the book lets him add a little bit of reality to the current ’70s revival. “Nobody I knew was going to discos and wearing white jump suits,” he says. “We were still wearing T-shirts and jeans.” He’s perturbed by Hollywood movies like Boogie Nights, the valentine to the ’70s porn industry, that get the details all wrong. He was especially put off by the scene in which a character tries to impress a customer by demoing a stereo using an eight-track tape. “They were trying to set it in the time, but I was on those sales floors then, and if you ever demoed a stereo with an eight-track, you’d get fired, man.” It’s the sort of gaffe that he won’t allow in his fiction, which he struggles to make as realistic as possible. “Hard-boiled to me just means authenticity,” he says. “Instead of fabrication.”
It was as an electronics salesman that Pelecanos got some of his most valuable education, even as he was working his way through the University of Maryland, where he had re-enrolled as a film major. He peddled hi-fi stereos and TVs during the glory days of the commission-driven hard sell, stalking the floors in between hits on some weed and swigs of the malt liquor that the salesmen kept in the stockrooms.
The mellow, damn near taciturn Pelecanos of today is a long way from the Afroed Greek kid who became a seasoned pro at closing the deal. Of course, like Pelecanos, the times have changed, and everything is self-service megastores now. “I’d probably never make it on a sales floor today,” he says. “But when I was younger, I was a helluva lot more gregarious. I was really stoked on that sales floor to win, be the top dog, all that. But that part of me is over. It’s like a husk I’ve fondly left behind.”
Pelecanos really gets excited when he talks about selling shoes, which he fondly recalls as the best job he’s ever had. Part of the reason, he admits now, is because he met his wife Emily on the job. (“This beautiful blonde was bending over….”) But also, he rhapsodizes, working at the legendary Bootlegger on Connecticut and K taught him the ways of the world, and his clientele included all the best-looking ladies in D.C., from hookers to secretaries. “There was a guy down there, and he was the best salesman I’ve ever seen. He could sell 50 shoes in an hourall these beautiful women’d be lining up,” he says. “He really took me to school.” He based the title character of Shoedog on the slick-rick salesman. (In its French translation, the noir tour-de-force boasts the title Le Chien Qui Vendait des Chaussures, or The Dog Who Sells Shoes.)
Most of all, these sales jobs made him an expert at the quick read, an essential skill for any hard-boiled author. That’s one of the genre’s most important tropes, memorializing characters in a few deft sentences that stick like an ID tag:
He didn’t look old. At least he didn’t look his age, not fifty-five. No way did he look fifty-five. He had put on a few pounds, but on him it looked good, and the goatee he had worn for thirty years had come back in style.
Pelecanos got so good at the sales schtick that by the time he was 30 he was running a $30 million-a-year major-appliance chain, with branch offices all over the Washington area. He and Emily got married and got little bungalow in Takoma Park, and that’s when he freaked. He pictured himself getting old on this job, and he’d sit outside the office at 7:50 a.m. in his pickup truck, blasting the Replacements to get him through another day. “I was choking in that Windsor knot,” he says. “I thought I was going to burst some blood vessels, seriously.”
Just as he had used movies to make his world bigger as a kid, he retreated to books in search of horizons that weren’t dotted with split-levels. In college, a chance literature course had exposed him to the pulp writers, and he had gotten hooked. It wasn’t so much the classic ’30s detective authors like Hammett that got him, it was the ’50s heirs like Charles Willeford and Crumley, who wrote about working stiffs in fucked-up situations. “Reading those guys, I could identify with these people,” he says. “And the prose styledirect and muscular, not overwritten, not florid. It fit my personality, and because it seemed so short and to-the-point, I thought I could do it myself. It wasn’t as easy as it looked.”
Pelecanos quit his job managing the appliance-store chain and started writing his first novel in longhand in a spiral notebook. To pay the bills, he took a job tending bar at My Brother’s Place, down in the federal district, a place where the regulars are government workers and cops drinking away their troubles. He wrote in his head during the day and put it on paper at night. His subject waswhat else?the subculture of electronics salesmen, but it soon expanded into a kind of PI mysteryNick Stefanos got in the biz for life. That was A Firing Offense, and it took more than two years before it got published.
Since then, the books have poured out, one per year. The routine goes like this: During the winter, Pelecanos writes on a computer in a closet-sized room off his sons’ bedroom. The books come out in the summer, get gushing reviews, and don’t make squat. (That is, until Sean “Puffy” Combs read Suckerman, and the former Howard University student recognized his Chocolate City.)
During this prolific but nonlucrative stretch, Pelecanos has made a living by working for local movie moguls and developers Ted and Jim Pedas, among the most respected elders in the local Greek community. Pelecanos galvanized the U.S. distribution for one of his idols, Chinese action-film auteur John Woo, and he helped The Killer become an art-house hit in 1990. (He even wrote the poster’s tag line”One bad hit man. One tough cop. And ten thousand bullets”which he isn’t embarrassed to mention earned him a place in The Book of Dumb Movie Blurbs.) These days, Pelecanos works as a producer for the Pedas’ Circle Films, which has handled the movies of the Coen Brothers, among other mavericks.
But, always, Pelecanos writes. He’s already finished the follow-up to The Sweet Forever. Titled Shame the Devil, it takes his characters into present-day D.C. Pelecanos says he’s striking while the iron’s hot, because who knows when obscurity will reclaim him?
At Ben’s Chili Bowl, on U Street NW, Pelecanos takes a stool at the counter and orders two chili dogs with mustard and onions. Classic ’70s funk blasts from the CD jukeboxGeorge Clinton, Steve Arrington’s Slave, and Earth, Wind & Fire; the tunes could be right off the soundtrack to King Suckerman, which Pelecanos hopes to have a hand in. (Good luck trying to elbow in on Puffy, though.)
Some of the most important scenes in The Sweet Forever take place at Ben’s. As usual, Pelecanos can’t help but plug a place he loves, but more importantly, it makes sense for the plot because the novel is set in the spring of ’86, when U Street was still trying to recover from the riots.
Just down 14th Street, there’s an Ethiopian grocery that used to be called Frank’s Carryout and run by Pelecanos’ grandfather. In the era of segregated Washington, it catered mostly to the local blacks, a policy that stood it in good stead when looting and rioting erupted after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. Very few non-black-owned businesses made it unscathed; one was Frank’s. “My grandfather’s place wasn’t even touched,” he says. “They didn’t do anything to his place.” (The diner is memorialized in The Big Blowdown, the 1996 novel that tells the saga of Greek immigrants in ’30s and ’40s D.C. Many critics say it remains his best work, and Pelecanos agrees.) By no means a sentimental look back, the book (which one reviewer compared to Sergio Leone’s classic Once Upon a Time in America) shows Greek gangsters every bit as ruthless as Rayful Edmond.
Pelecanos’ D.C.-centrism rings authentic in part because he has an ability to move across racial lines without sounding as if he has a safari hat on. In The Sweet Forever, Marcus Clay, last seen nearly a decade before in the shoot-’em-up at the end of Suckerman, emerges as the protagonist, the most fully realized black character that Pelecanos has ever done. In Forever, Clay has opened up a branch of his record-store chain, Real Right Records, on U Street to try to help bring the businesses back. But the street is plagued by cocaine dealers, foot soldiers for a kingpin named Cleveland Tyrell.
A neighborhood boy, Anthony Taylor, wanders the streets; the 11-year-old lives with his grandma because his mom, a drug addict, is trying to get clean with relatives down in Carolina. Anthony’s a lonely, vulnerable kid, and Clay takes him under his wing, lets him help out at the store, and often buys him lunch at Ben’s. But it’s hard to stay out of trouble, even when you’re not looking for any. In one riveting scene, Tyrell’s drug dealers, guns blazing, give chase to Anthony, who has seen something he shouldn’t have.
He ran as hard as he’d ever run, cutting right on 13th, crossing U, going up the hill between Cardoza and Clifton Terrace without breaking stride. He heard boys yelling at him and laughing as he ran. There were ghosts chasing him, the dead, fire, snakes, rats, everything pale and ugly that slept beneath his bed, and every sharp-toothed, rotted thing that had ever waited in the dark corners of the basement of his granmom’s house. They were all chasing him now, and he wasn’t going to stop, because they had all come out tonight and they were all behind him and close, so close he could feel their stinking, hot breath raising the hairs on the back of his neck.
He heard the crack of a gunshot echo up from the south.
Though Anthony makes it back safely, some other kids aren’t so lucky, The gunfire is the sound of drug dealers executing a pair of 10-year-olds for invading their turf; one of the dead boys clutches a Spider-Man doll in one hand and a packet of cocaine in the other.
Youngsters dying young is right off the TV news, but it’s unexplored territory for Pelecanos. The phenomenon is disturbing, and that makes it perfect fodder for a contemporary noir set in D.C. “What could be more noir than a kid stuck in the inner city?” says Pelecanos. “Every day he’s walking to school and he’s scared to death, and he can’t find a way out. That’s what noir originally was: It was the claustrophobia of the city closing in on you, right? To me, nobody had really addressed thata kid trapped in the city. What’s it like to be a child who’s been born into this by accident? That’s noir to me.”
After his Stefanos trilogy, Pelecanos began to chafe against the limitations of the crime/mystery genre. In The Sweet Forever, named for a gospel song he once heard in a D.C. church, he wanted to break new ground: “I’d basically come to the point where I was sick of noir, because now it’s become a parody of a parody. It’s like in moviesin the late stages of the ’50s, noir movies became a parody, like Kiss Me Deadly, a great film, but it’s a parody of noir. And so modern noir literature has become this James M. Cain riff where a guy is sucked into the web of a black-widow spider woman who makes him kill people. It’s always wealthy white guys, they lose everything ’cause they’re drunk on pussy or whatever.”
New, less arch, motifs emerge to good effect in Forever.The death of University of Maryland basketball star Len Bias from a cocaine overdose hovers over the book like a curse. “I cried the day he died,” says Pelecanos. “It was a big thing here in Washington. It meant more to me than John Lennon or somebody dying. The guy was a hero to me. At my writing desk, I’ve still got the newspaper photo of him palming two basketballs.”
The new book also represents Pelecanos’ first foray into city politics; it focuses on the early signs of moral decay and corruption in the D.C. government and police that have not been fully uncovered to this day. “’86 was the low point for the city in a lot of ways,” he says. “Not just the crack cocaine thing; the corruption was just incredible that year. That’s when all the ducks started to fall: Ivanhoe, Mary Treadwell, Alphonse Hill. This all happened that yearthey were all falling. That was when you started thinking, ‘What the fuck is going on here, man? Like, what’s really going on?’”
Washington’s most hard-boiled fiction writer actually lives in a quaint little bungalow on a shady lane a few blocks from downtown Silver Spring, just over the District line The front yard is choked with friendly-looking sunflowers, and his sprawling backyard is often host to a den of red foxes. It’s not far from where he grew up, and it’s not exactly the urban battleground that makes up the bulk of his fiction.
For Pelecanos, it’s all a matter of semantics. “This might as well be D.C.,” he says, sitting on his back porch. “I could throw a rock from here and hit D.C.” Pelecanos has his own version of the city, a gerrymandered territory that would include Silver Spring, not Wheaton, and Oxon Hill, not Northern Virginiawell, he admits, maybe parts of Arlington. It’s no coincidence that the map of “real D.C.” that he draws includes his own abode.
On a summer night, Pelecanos sits on his back porch, the sounds of Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew drifting from the living room. Then 7-year-old son Nick bursts out of the house, laughing and singing and carrying on. Still wired from playing in a nearby park, he seems the opposite in temperment from his mellow, stoic dad. Nick carries an armful of videos he’s itching to watch. It’s the typical kiddie fare, Disney and the rest. Tonight it’s The Brady Bunch Movie. “Make sure you come in and tell me good night before you go to bed, man,” says Pelecanos, as Nick rushes back inside.
The kids who get gunned down in The Sweet Forever aren’t much older than Nick and his brother, Pete, 5. Pelecanos and his wife adopted them from Brazil, and the couple’s 19-month-old Rosa, a curly-haired, dark-eyed cutie, hails from Guatemala. Until the schools improve, he has no intention of moving to D.C., which he sees as a very segregated placementioning mostly white Ward 3 and mostly black Ward 8 as the most obvious examples. “I mean, c’mon, man; my kids are mixed-race,” he says. “And I want them to grow up with all kinds of friends. I don’t want to live in a neighborhood where everybody’s the same.”
The Washington in Pelecanos’ books is a sort of fictional family album of his life, he says, shot through with the violence of the crime genre. But he has no desire to be seen as the stereotype of the hard-boiled author, walking the mean streets for after hours research. “I’ve got all the material I need from all the jobs I’ve had, the things I’ve seen,” he says. Back then, he wasn’t gathering material, just living his life. “One early press release said something like, ‘Pelecanos makes his nightly forays into Washington,’ like I put on a ninja suit and went stalking around,” he says. “I didn’t ever need to do that.”
Pelecanos says he’s already got a whole shelf of books planned out. Even with the money from the Suckerman deal and prospects of a movie career (“I’d love to direct something,” he says), he will keep hacking away as a writer, no matter what sort of success comes his way.
“I’m done with detectives and all that stuff,” he says. “Now I’m just writing about working people who get into these situations. I want to write a western, too, which drives my agent crazy. My idea is to have it set out West in the late 1800s and for some reason bring these guys back East, like a spaghetti western kind of thingbut in D.C. They don’t want me to, ’cause westerns don’t sell unless you’re Larry McMurtry.”
What he writes is less important than the act of writing. Like his father and grandfather, who would get up at 4:30 every morning to open their restaurants, Pelecanos is big on punching in. “They worked their asses off, but they loved what they were doing,” he says. “And I’m fortunate enough to say the same.”
Back around when he finished The Big Blowdown, and his magnum opus bombed commercially like all the others, he was ready to give it up. Trying to be a hotshot author wasn’t worth jeopardizing his children’s future. So even now, despite the specter of big-time success breathing down his neck, he’s keeping his day job. “I just want to be able to support my kids,” he says. “The books will be there; they’ll be there as a record. So people can read them and know what it was like to live in Washington.” CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Photographs by Jim Saah.