Arts Desk

New Grit: Optimistic Noir in George Pelecanos’ What It Was

What It Was, the 18th novel by D.C. crime novelist George Pelecanos, is priced to move. The trade paperback costs what a typical ebook does ($9.99), and the ebook is priced like one of the Funkadelic and Stylistics tunes that bubble under the plot: Ninety-nine cents if you buy it within a month of its Jan. 23 publication date, $4.99 thereafter. The variety of options (there’s a fancy limited-edition hardcover available, too) exemplifies the publishing industry’s we’ll-try-anything approach to pricing in the Kindle era. But the list price also represents a kind of plea for indulgence from fans: Crime novelists traditionally don’t ask readers to pony up more than once a year, and this is the second book Pelecanos has released in less than five months.

But go ahead and shell out: The book (Little, Brown; 256 pps.) is as smart, cooly efficient, and streetwise as any of Pelecanos’ best recent novels. Still, it’s an unusual entry in his oeuvre. Pelecanos’ previous book, The Cut, was promoted as a fresh start with a brand-new hero, Iraq War vet Spero Lucas, who navigates a revitalized, gentrifying D.C. that’s done reckoning with the ’68 riots and the crack years. When Spero takes a date to Busboys & Poets on 14th and V streets NW, he sees “all sorts of faces and types, the D.C. most folks had wanted for a long time.” Early in the book, Spero walks past the offices of investigator Derek Strange, the hero of four Pelecanos novels, and the scene seems to imply that the author himself was moving on. But here Strange is again, starring in What It Was, which is set in 1972.

So which direction does Pelecanos want to go in? He hasn’t written a book fully set in the ’70s since his 1997 breakthrough, King Suckerman. 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 a Pelecanos who’s increasingly optimistic 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.

If “optimism” seems like an odd word to attach to a noirish writer, consider What It Was’ bad guy. The novel’s plot turns on Red “Fury” Jones, who spends the summer of ’72 on a crime spree, brazenly broadcasting his status in a nickname-inspiring red and white Plymouth Fury with his girlfriend’s name, Coco, stamped on the vanity plates. Working to nab him are Strange, an ex-cop who left the force after the riots, and his former MPD partner, Frank Vaughn. Without Red there’s no gunplay, but his vibe is more that of a folk hero than a civic menace. When Pelecanos enters Red’s mind, he finds a man who’s built himself up into blaxploitation film hero, complete with a “wacka-wacka-wacka-wak” soundtrack: “Jones could hear music and the lyrics, which went, ‘Red Fury, he’s the man/Try and stop him if you can.’”

As portraits of evil go, this won’t exactly make your blood run cold; inside the mind of every badass killer, apparently, is a shitty lyricist just aching to break free. Accenting Red’s narcissism instead of his brutality gives the novel a softer focus, and even the good guys think of him with an attitude not unlike tenderness. As they head to Burrville for their climactic confrontation with Red, Vaughn tells Strange that, if nothing else, Red’s motives have a certain logic: “The clock ticks. You get toward the finish line, you realize that what’s important is the name you leave behind. Red Jones gets it.”

Set that depiction of crime and pop culture in the ’70s against King Suckerman’s, and you can see how much Pelecanos’ style and attitude have changed in the past decade and a half. The somber tone of that earlier novel is set by the fake blaxploitation film of its title, about a pimp whose fearsomeness (“one stone ugly motherfucker”) has none of Red’s funk and assertiveness. The end of the film in particular is pure bummer:

The last shot of the movie had King Suckerman in his cell, wasting away from tertiary syphilis. The camera zoomed into his eyes, the hollow eyes of any scared old man lying alone in the terminal ward, waiting for death. A freeze-frame appeared then, and a slower, bluesier version of the title song ran over the end credits. By then most of the patrons had walked out of the auditorium without comment.

Pelecanos doesn’t write like that anymore, in a number of ways. That passage’s level of description is almost Proustian compared to the hard-nosed, lean sentences of What It Was and The Cut. King Suckerman’s D.C. is also grimmer, more bongheaded, and more prone to youthful stupidity. Dimitri Karras, Suckerman’s hero, is an aimless 20-something small-time dealer whose understanding of the District is largely circumscribed by WHFS and whose lack of ambition leaves him with plenty of time on his hands.

And now? The clock ticks. Pelecanos couldn’t abide a hero so lacking in the having-together of shit: He signaled that in 2008’s The Turnaround, about a middle-aged man who was paying the price for an act of youthful, race-baiting lunkheadedness as a teen in 1972, the same year in which What It Was is set. The Cut’s Spero Lucas is young, but he has a steely concentration on his job and complete impatience with wasted conversation. “I’m not gonna sit around and have drinks with people who are, you know, ironic,” he tells his date.

War is the great irony-killer for Pelecanos—that ticking clock has been much more prominent in his fiction since the Iraq war began. Spero Lucas’ Iraq stint gives him discipline but also makes him an outsider in the District; at one point he heads to an American Legion hall “to be around people who understood.” There’s a similarly empathetic moment in What It Was, as Strange talks to a Vietnam vet who witnessed one of Red Jones’ murders: “This wasn’t any street person, or drunk, or junkie. The man was a veteran who’d been in it and come out torn on the other side.”

That emphasis on upright manliness—making it through war, making a living, doing what you can to be a decent citizen—makes the bad guys seem a little less relevant to the story, even a bit cartoonish. About a third of the way through What It Was, a pair of Italian mafia thugs drives in from New York, determined to recover some missing drug money. In Pelecanos novels, out-of-towners might as well be wearing sandwich boards reading, “I am a symbol of ignorance and hubris,” but rarely have they appeared as clownlike as they do here. As they settle into a hotel to exchange racist and misogynistic banter, Pelecanos openly mocks them, observing that the room became “heavy with smoke and the sound of their thoughtful conversation.”

All of which makes What It Was feel less intense than Pelecanos’ recent novels, more of a joyride than a work of two-fisted realism. Indeed, the whole story is run through a nostalgic filter, bookended by scenes in the present day where an aging Strange describes the Red Fury legend to an aging Nick Stefanos, another old-school Pelecanos hero. For Strange, D.C. in the pre-crack ’70s is a place where he can feel upbeat, an improvement over the “rough old ghetto” he knew in 1968: He’s living in a “thrilling, glorious time,” and feels “young and in the midst of something, a music, dress, and cultural revolution that was happening with his people, in his time.”

“Just a story,” Strange tells Stefanos at the end of the novel, as if he hadn’t just delivered a raft of moral messages. Strange’s heroism in 1972 comes from his belief that the most appropriate attitude to have about the past is that you move past it; old-school cops like Vaughn, he observes, “were about to be extinct.” Race is still Problem A in the District: Strange pokes some fun at white guilt, and the District’s black residents talk to Strange, a black ex-cop, differently than they do the white Vaughn. But the novel frames the District as a place where the getting-along work on race is happening and thought about. Even Vaughn is smart enough to know that movies like Buck and the Preacher are simplistic about race, “where all the black guys were heroes and studs and the whites were racists, trashmen, or queers.”

In some places Pelecanos’ cynicism remains harder to shake: In both novels somebody cracks wise about how awful the Redskins’ owner is, and, as ever, he reminds us that the Post gives postage-stamp coverage to murders of young blacks in the District. Far Northeast in What It Was is filled with “unhealthy food establishments” and usurious retailers, while in The Cut it’s filled with “the kind of place that kept folks unhealthy, broke, and low.”

Those persistent problems, though, don’t make nearly as much noise as two young heroes’ efforts to transcend them. In the new District, be it the one circa 1972 or circa 2012, Pelecanos’ best advice is to live in the moment and get to work.

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