George Pelecanos’s DC Quartet

I started reading George Pelecanos novels because he was one of the writers on HBO’s The Wire.  Specifically, he gets the writing credit on the episode that has what still feels to me, 15 years later, like the saddest moment I have ever watched on television, and perhaps the truest evocation of the catharsis of tragedy I have ever encountered: the second-to-last episode of the first season, on which an until-then not-really-central character is murdered by his friends.  Pelecanos also wrote the second-to-last episode of the 3rd season, where something very similar happens, arguably with even greater heft.   In my mind, Pelecanos’s name came to hold such power that when I was watching season 4, and the opening credits finished, and it said “Written by George Pelecanos” I became scared  and sad , because I suspected something profoundly tragic was going to go down (it did).

I figured that anyone who could have written those moments for television, it was worth reading what they could write in a novel.  I’ve probably read 7-8 of these books (and a smaller number from The Wire‘s other credited authors of fiction, Dennis Lehane and Richard Price).  I have enjoyed all of these books, and in the case of Price’s Samaritan at least, I can say they sometimes reach moments of poignancy and pathos – but all told, really none of it approaches The Wire.  I think there’s something inherently televisual about the stories being told there, something that the authors’ n0vels only anticipate or emulate but cannot duplicate.

In the 90’s, before The Wire, Pelecanos wrote four books that form a tetrology.  They’re all set in DC, and all feature the same cast or characters (or their ancestors).  The Big Blowdown, set in the mid 1940’s, features the Greek Peter Karras and a group of his friends, each of different shades of southern-European first-generation immigrant, including fellow Greek Nick Stefanos.  The series’ other 3 entries center around Peter Karras’s son Dimitri Karras, and Nick Stefanos’s grandson, also Nick Stefanos.  There are a nexus of other characters whose relatives also make appearances.  One of the pleasures (and frustrations) of reading these books was connecting those lines, figuring out who was who, and remembering.  This isn’t modernism, really, so Pelecanos gives you plenty of establish and exposition-type dialogue, but it’s still a lot to keep straight.  The whole thing has a sweep similar to John Updike’s Rabbit novels, though they do not reach as far or aspire to somehow reveal the American essence (and that’s a good thing).

The novels are all plot-heavy, as you’d expect from “genre fiction” (whatever that means) and sorting out the details of who shot whom, who knows what and who’s going to figure it out is fun too – but for me what I enjoyed most was the evocation of a sense of place.  There’s plenty about DC that I’m not in a position to verify, but I assume has been researched accurately.  In fact, the research sometimes hangs awkwardly off the sentences, making me wonder whether it needed to be there – but the real “settings” best done here are the places of business: bars, restaurants and record stores.

The characters themselves are often compelling, though just as often incline to simple kinds of masculine moralism.  It’s a fair question whether this is happening in the service of a realistic depiction of these mens’ inner states, or whether Pelecanos’s narrator (and therefore Pelecanos) is vouching for it directly.

In the end, the 3rd volume – The Sweet Forever – left the deepest impression.  It is centered   around the 1986 NCAA tournament, and the later death of Len Bias.  But reading the other novels in order made that book work better than it would have on its own.

For me, this work is in a weird niche – it’s not pulpy/kitschy enough to be part of the current academic fad of studying “popular literature,” though not “literary” enough to be the kind of thing you’d actually want to read too too closely.  When I was writing this, there were no passages I wanted to explore or celebrate, nothing in the language that stood out on its own.  But in the end, there is a pleasure in the reading it anyway, especially in the litanies of musical and sports arguments, or the shop-talk in the back of a Greek diner.  Even if you don’t know about defunct east coast ABA franchises or DC go-go music, you can appreciate the passion with which its characters defend and attack each other about it.

Like I said, it’s never The Wire but it’s pretty good nonetheless.

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