Drama City

by George Pelecanos (Little, Brown)

The third season of HBO’s The Wire–an engrossing cops ‘n’ gangs drama overlooked by viewers in favor of the flashier Deadwood and Oz–offered an unprecedented discussion of American carceral philosophy.

In crime-plagued Baltimore (also the setting for cocreator David Simon’s earlier show Homicide), city hall rains down pressure upon the police department to reduce murder stats,

and cynical police brass simply shift the problem to beleaguered district commanders. “Bunny” Colvin, an admired officer on the verge of retiring to a Johns Hopkins security job, decides to try something new: he scouts out a few extradevastated blocks and has his reluctant but loyal officers declare them “free zones.”

Nicknamed “Hamsterdam” by one confused baller, these streets are a haven where dealers can ply their trade without interdiction–but if they venture onto the more populous streets, they’re dealt with harshly. As a result of this “experiment in social engineering,” civilian life grows safer and Bunny’s violent incident numbers plummet. It all ends in tragedy, of course, but not before viewers are exposed to another element of the drug war’s dangerous folly: that alternative solutions, albeit morally ambiguous ones, do exist.

The creative muscle behind this memorable season (on March 17 HBO confirmed its order for season four) was a veritable murderer’s row of contemporary writers: Dennis Lehane (Mystic River), Richard Price (Clockers), and George Pelecanos (Hard Revolution), who also gets a producer’s credit. They burnished the dialogue and characterizations with the precise, ruthless urban detail each has made a specialty. You have to go back to the 1950s to find this sort of nexus between contemporary literature and televised drama.

Price and Lehane are already relatively well-known from their film work: Price is a prolific screenwriter, and Lehane’s Gone, Baby, Gone is set to be directed by Ben Affleck in the fall (a bit of news that prompted Bookslut’s Mike Schaub to snark, “It’s gonna suck, baby, suck”). But Pelecanos, despite having long since established himself as an exceptionally stylish crime-fiction writer, has remained beloved only within the genre. Many thought King Suckerman (1997), a lavish, hard-boiled 70s period novel, would be his commercial breakthrough, but even the inevitable Tarantino comparisons failed to gain him a wider readership. Fittingly, he has the sort of workaday background that fiction writers need to cultivate to survive the vagaries of publishing. His improbable resume extends from early years as a line cook, bartender, and shoe salesman to the stint in discount electronics savagely parodied in his 1992 debut, A Firing Offense, to a remarkable role in the rise of Asian cult cinema in the States: until recently he was the manager of D.C.’s Circle Films, the U.S. distributor of the John Woo classic The Killer.

He’s a writer who understands the value of working hard. His recent material combines intensely localized urban settings with a fierce moral conviction that day-to-day rectitude matters, even for players in the street economy.

Pelecanos’s new Drama City is his 13th novel set in the regions of our nation’s capital not served by Wonkette. The novel’s protagonist, Lorenzo Brown, strongly resembles The Wire’s magnetic Cutty, a dour ex-enforcer just released from a 14-year stretch who must choose between the degrading straight life offered to convicts and a return to the game he no longer has the heart for. Cutty’s conflicted redemption (he tries to start a boxing gym for the idle teens hanging around Hamsterdam) provided some of season three’s more haunting moments.

The paroled Lorenzo, by contrast, methodically pursues the straight life. He is disciplined, regimented, right down to the humiliating yet soothing ritual of picking up after his dog as he walks through the hood, past scornful young bangers and his childhood friend and former partner Nigel. The neighborhood drug kingpin, Nigel sees himself as “providing opportunity and a sense of family for those who otherwise had [none]”–Lorenzo’s prison stint notwithstanding. Determined to stay legit, Lorenzo gets a job as an animal control officer, wielding a badge alongside do-gooder, straight-edge Caucasians, the irony of which escapes neither him nor Nigel.

Drama City’s other key character is Lorenzo’s parole officer, Rachel Lopez. In sizing up her client she displays the moral pragmatism appropriate to Pelecanos’s world: “He had done some bad things beyond the mechanics of dealing drugs. But she did not think that the Lorenzo Brown she knew in the present was a bad man”–and she (correctly) surmises that the care Lorenzo takes with animals indicates that he’s likely to resist the lure of Nigel and his bling-happy acolytes. Rachel coolly assesses all her parolees, a flotsam of young and middle-aged drug felons, on similar terms. At night she indulges her own dual nature, pursuing savage one-night stands in hotel bars (ever since the stoned, scamming stereo salesmen of his early work, Pelecanos has had a way with oozing, hungry descriptions of sex and drugs) and punctuating that stressful routine with the ritual abnegation of 12-step meetings.

Genre writers often rely on summary as a way of glossing over character development, but in the meetings Pelecanos articulates each addict’s testimonial, establishing a strange benchmark of anguish that provides intimacy yet seems nearly didactic. It’s as if he wants to make sure readers make the connection between the dignity of Rachel’s daily work and the tales of debasement common to 12-step programs.

In his 2003 book, Soul Circus, Pelecanos used the broad scope of the 1968 D.C. riots to create an epic urban period piece. By contrast, this efficiently structured novel is driven by the details of the characters’ daily lives. The tight narrative, with its reliably chilling spasms of violence, is much closer in spirit to the old Gold Medal paperbacks by Jim Thompson or David Goodis than to anything by Price or Lehane. But in Pelecanos’s urban universe, the redemptive common denominator isn’t the recovery mantra–although varying levels of addiction reappear throughout his work, in another reminder of the old Gold Medals. It’s the reinforcing ritual of work.

There’s a strict division between the honorable characters, criminals or not, who work hard and pursue things they find engaging (such as Nigel, who maintains the outward trappings of sober entrepreneurship down to his shell business, a variety store selling pagers, condoms, and “everything else his young, mobile customers might need”), and the loafers, who often turn murderously stupid when other characters are least prepared for it. These guys are the bit players: embittered has-been Melvin Lee (who, Lorenzo notes, “looked like something that crawled up a wall”) and his unhinged sidekick, Rico, whose sadistic violence whirls the plot toward one of the perennial noir questions: will the reformed man backslide?

The older characters in Drama City nervously assure themselves that the corner boys will settle down, as they have, and redeem themselves through hard work, even as the novel’s near-ritual “respect murders” and the persistence of the underground economy ensure otherwise. By the conclusion, as the book’s survivors confront one another outside yet another 12-step meeting, Pelecanos makes explicit his faith in the idea of personal salvation through proletarian values: “There was light left in the day, and work to do.”

Pelecanos is an artful writer, but he’s not always a subtle one. As with the character of Cutty on The Wire, he and his contemporaries Price and Lehane seem desperately to want to school the youngsters, to turn them away from the oppressive trifecta of ghetto capitalism, consumerism, and gun violence, even while knowing that the hard slabs of urban America leave them few options. It’s a mission that could lead straight to melodrama, but Pelecanos is able to wed a keen eye for the vagaries of urban existence to a pragmatic, unfashionable emphasis on the responsibility and ritual of work, and infuse Drama City with an enjoyable, hard-edged dignity.