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Sunday, October 15, 2006

Book Reviews

The City Chronicle

The Night Gardener by George P. Pelecanos. Little, Brown and Company, Boston, 2006, 384 pages, $24.99.

[The] detective novel becomes more and more social....It’s not going to be long before we define the detective novel as a social one with a detective plot.
—Petros Markaris

Courtesy Little, Brown and Company
George Pelecanos is one of the few American writers today who can reflect accurately on urban life. Pelecanos’s stories center on Washington, DC (and its surrounding suburbs), a city that is usually represented through its status as the nation’s capital, a city of politics and scandals, of national monuments and museums. There are many other parts of the city, however, that do not follow this narrative. One need only look at Pelecanos’s fiction, and his representation of the city, to find neighborhoods and entire districts that have been neglected by the political elite and excluded from the development and transformation taking place in other parts of the capital. Pelecanos’s fiction examines the city’s socioeconomic and cultural fabric, but not through the lenses of stereotypical media perceptions. Viewers of HBO’s critically acclaimed The Wire will already be familiar with this imagery from its depiction of Baltimore: Pelecanos is a producer and writer on the series. As Jacob Weisberg, the editor of Slate, recently wrote in a review of The Wire:

No other programme has ever come close to doing what it does, namely portraying the social, political and economic life of an American city with the scope, precision and moral vision of great literature….[T]he program has become richer and more ambitious with each season and now fits only into a category it defines by itself: the urban procedural. Its protagonist is the broken metropolis of Baltimore, depicted with obsessive verisimilitude and affectionate rage. (Financial Times, “A black underclass gets its own Dickens,” September 14, 2006)

Although Pelecanos renders specific sites rich in unique detail, the experience is emblematic of an American metropolis that gains little attention.

As I have argued in in previous reviews of Pelecanos’s work, there is no one else to my mind, with the exception perhaps of Walter Mosley or Spike Lee, who portrays the people and the astonishing streets and neighborhoods of the American city with such vivid but realistic strokes. (See my “The Psychology of Crime,” April 1, 2002; “The District,” April 15, 2003; and “Urban Blues,” November 24, 2004.) Without romanticizing his portrayal of DC, one can say that Pelecanos, like a modern flâneur, penetrates the city’s psyche, exposing his readers to a mosaic of different shapes and colors, forces and dynamics. This urban space becomes the setting in which different characters collide, but also coexist, and where the pursuit of the American dream can turn into a very dangerous adventure, where fate and free agency interact. In Pelecanos’s work, as in every good detective or crime novel, heterogeneous and multiplicitous elements—things that on first sight make no sense together—are masterfully interwoven into a narrative logic.

Pelecanos’s new book, The Night Gardener, begins in 1985 with a crime scene in a Washington neighborhood known as Greenway. This opening serves to introduce us to the book’s main characters, whose lives, despite all their differences, will be linked forever by a series of murders of young teenagers, which the press will call the “Palindrome Murders.” The three characters present at this earlier crime scene are T. C. Cook, a legendary homicide detective, and two uniformed officers, Gus Ramone and Dan Holiday, just past their rookie year. The perpetrator of this crime, the “Night Gardener,’’ is never caught, but a similar crime 20 years later raises both the fear that the serial killer has struck again as well as the hope that, this time, he’ll be caught. The latest victim is a boy named Asa, who happened to be a friend of Ramone’s young son, Diego. This most recent crime reunites the three men from the opening scene, who have gone in different directions: T. C. Cook is retired and barely recovering from a stroke, while Dan Holiday has left the force under suspicion and is in the middle of an internal investigation. Gus Ramone is the only one still on the police force as a homicide detective. This is a story, then, about what has become of these men, and of their current relationship to the young generation, which is the present and future of the city. Thus, this police procedural is a pretext for the author to elaborate and focus on the story’s urban microcosm, dynamism, and plurality of forces and characters.

The classic question—whodunit? or, who’s the Night Gardener?—is almost irrelevant since it only serves as catalyst for the writer to communicate the nature and psychological world of his protagonists and their social surroundings. At the same time, however, the violence perpetrated, like an originary event, has forever affected and disturbed the equanimity of the people involved. And so, 20 years later, we see Detective Cook haunted by the ghosts of the innocent young victims, and others, like Dan Holiday, struggling with a sense of alienation and lack of purpose outside the police force. For these two, solving the case and catching the Night Gardener is like a second chance, a return to life from a no-man’s land, more specifically, as in the description of Cook below, to a life of “goals”:

…[H]is days were long on boredom. He got up early, made out what he could of the newspaper, then spent time in his office or the workshop in his basement, looking for something to do….Cook was someone who had always lived for goals, and now he had none.
He wasn’t mentally weak. He had more reasons than most to be unhappy, but he would not allow himself the out of depression….
His circulatory system was fragile, the doctor said. No, I cannot tell you how long it will be before the “next event.”…Continue to lead an active but careful life. Take your medication. Bullshit piled on top of bullshit, on and on….
He’d sooner eat his gun. But that was a thought for another day. (pp. 264-266)

As for Gus Ramone, we see him performing as a detective but also agonizing as a father over his family, and his son’s safety, education, and future:

He was having more than second thoughts about the decision to transfer Diego out to a Montgomery County school, but at the time he’d made it he felt he had run out of options. Ramone and Regina had been in agreement that the District middle in their zone was unacceptable. Physically it was in a state of perpetual disrepair, and it was always short on supplies, including pencils and paper. With the school’s low lighting, many of the fluorescents and the incandescents either dead or nonexistent, and the metal detectors and security personnel stationed at every working door, it resembled a prison. Sure, plenty of money got pumped into the D.C. school system, but, suspiciously little seemed to funnel down to the kids. And the kids themselves had begun to find trouble, both in school and out. (pp. 74-75)

As for the new school, it was “situated in a neighborhood known for its liberal activism, a place where ‘Celebrate Diversity’ bumper stickers were commonly displayed on cars. The days Ramone picked up his son at the school, he saw that most of the black students streaming out the doors hung together and walked in the down-street direction of the ‘apartments,’ while the white students headed for their homes on the high ground” (p. 76).

This particular diversity, of course, as Pelecanos suggests in his story, cares only for a specific image of youth. On the other hand, through the experience of his own family as well as his work on the streets, Ramone exposes us to the harsh urban realities—often a consequence of specific political action (or inaction)—of children and young men, and the barriers and challenges faced by these young people in their lives. As is quite often the case in Pelecanos’s stories, the street’s intensity parallels the intensity of private space, the house. A city is not made up only of its streets, as outside and open space; as Pelecanos shows us, the intensity of home harbors its own violence. That often makes it difficult to clearly differentiate between good and bad characters, the guilty and innocent. Ironically enough for many young men, access to public space is quite often a way out from the asphyxia of the domestic realm, although, for fathers like Gus, the privacy of the house provides security from the dangers of the outside world. It is in their house that Gus feels that his son is protected. Every time he returns to the house, he tries to connect with his son as if he is acting on behalf of every other father. But that is not always the case.

In Pelecanos’s fiction, middle-class views and prejudices can turn out to be as fateful and deadly as the Night Gardener. Which is to say that nothing is given a priori—within the story’s framework, the reader can expect anything. The detective, then, following the classical structure of the detective story, is the one who brings everything together, who tries to reconcile and understand things that might not make sense at first sight. As Gus Ramone discovers during the investigation of Asa’s death, violence is often a product of unexpected places and people.

Urban experience is not, at least for the author, a force of fate that almost mathematically determines the lives of its inhabitants. On the contrary, there is always space for hope and maybe a way out in Pelecanos’s stories. After all, Pelecanos’s characters operate within boundaries that depend on a number of social and economic imperatives. In that sense, although the characters’ dependence on their own environment is almost given, their often-unconscious reaction and rebellion to these mechanisms of dependence is, at the same time, what drives the story’s plot. Yet, in the end, one wonders how much changes in the city, and what has changed in the lives of the children who inhabit it.

Each time I open a new novel by George Pelecanos, I wonder, because of my long interest in his work and the genre in general, if there is anything more or new for him to tell us. But every time I finish reading, I am surprised and impressed by his maturity and sensibility in his portrayal of the modern city. While it is quite clear that Pelecanos’s latest novel is about youth, the story of youth is also the chronicle of the city.

Apostolos Vasilakis teaches literature and philosophy at Roosevelt University in Chicago.
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