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Wednesday, November 24, 2004

Book Reviews

Urban Blues

Hard Revolution: A Novel by George Pelecanos. Little, Brown and Company, Boston, 2004, 400 pages, $24.95.

Come along people, listen to me
Don’t try to find no home in Washington, DC.
Lord it’s a bourgeois town, it’s a bourgeois town
I got the bourgeois blues
I’m gonna spread the news all around….
Home of the brave, land of the free
I don’t want to be mistreated by no bourgeoisie
Lord it’s a bourgeois town….
—Huddy “Leadbelly” Ledbetter, Bourgeois Blues

Courtesy of Little, Brown and Company
George Pelecanos’s readers will not be disappointed by his new novel, Hard Revolution. Like his previous work, this is a well-constructed narrative that uses all the main ingredients of a good crime-fiction story while, at the same time, offering a realistic exposé of the harsh realities of urban life in Washington, DC, within a specific political and social context. (See my previous discussions on this Website of Pelecanos’s work: “The Psychology of Crime,” April 1, 2002; and “The District,” April 15, 2003.) This is the twelfth, and most ambitious, novel by Pelecanos, who also co-produces and writes scripts for The Wire, the successful crime series on HBO.

Although Hard Revolution does not have the edge and fast beat of Pelecanos’s early fiction—and becomes somewhat predictable for those of us familiar with his work—the author still knows how to tell a story and how to interweave urban topography with his characters’ idiosyncrasies and historical reality. In fact, what makes the novel so ambitious has much to do with Pelecanos’s successful attempt to situate his characters’ lives within a specific social and political context. Pelecanos’s construction of his characters’ urban experience in the 1960s is presented in such a way as to mark the transition between what came before Vietnam, the civil rights movement, and the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., and what comes or might come after. The manner in which the author brings together the private and public spheres makes this novel a real pleasure to read.

Living conditions had deteriorated as poverty had grown throughout the decade. At present, only one out of three students in the city graduated from public schools, resulting in a huge unskilled workforce released into a white-collar, government-industry town that yielded few jobs and little in the way of prospects. For many the promise of the civil rights movement seemed broken. And if the ghetto was thought of by its residents as a kind of prison, then its police force was seen as the prison guard…. In August of ’67, arson and minor riots had broken out along 7th and 14th Streets, with rocks and bottles thrown at firemen attempting to extinguish the flames. Since then, unrest and disorder had become almost weekly occurrences…. Black Panthers and other Black Nationalist factions had become active and entrenched around the city. (pp. 82-83)

The story reintroduces Derek Strange, one of Pelecanos’s most memorable characters from his prior novels, this time as a rookie police officer in DC. Chronologically earlier than his previous works starring a much older Strange, Hard Revolution is a flashback into Strange’s background that helps us to better understand how Derek has been shaped by the historical and personal events of his youth. Although Derek’s history begins with a brief reference to his childhood and a fateful episode from 1959, it is the year 1968 and everything that date stands for that becomes the narrative’s temporal frame. The story focuses on Derek’s relationship with his family and on how the historical and social changes of the times affect the family dynamic and mark the transition from one generation’s experience to another’s. At the same time, the criminal activity of black and white gangs and senseless killers loom in the background. What is so masterful about Pelecanos’s narrative is his ability to tie together all these different elements: urban and historical violence, public and private turmoil, the Vietnam war and domestic “war.”

In Hard Revolution, Pelecanos loosens his tight focus on some of the more concrete issues addressed in his previous work—gun control, gentrification, the politics of the death penalty—to depict a broader view of the historical background that serves to make these such charged issues today. As both the novel’s title and the historical reality of 1968 suggest, the narrative uses examples of political and racial violence, social injustice, and the traumatic experience of Vietnam to reveal the permanent scars that these events left on the lives of individuals and on the soul of an urban community. It is quite clear, however, that Pelecanos’s intention was not to write a historical novel—although he is continually writing the (hi)story of the city—but, rather, to bear witness to the fact that this country’s racial trauma and history cannot be separated from the problems and issues of crime, alienation, poverty, and the underclass. In this way, the novel, like all of the author’s work, counters (at least indirectly) the conservative argument that past racial injustice means nothing to contemporary social issues. Symbolically speaking, the novel summons the ghosts of that past injustice and violence that continue to haunt the present.

Pelecanos uses both cultural artifacts and historical events to mark the many divides that dissect society: generational, racial, experiential. In Hard Revolution, music and cars, for example, become signifiers of that transition. Music functions as a medium that marks not only the passage from one generation to the other, but also frames the racial tension in Washington, DC, and, upon occasion, offers the possibility of a sense of togetherness. In fact, some of the novel’s most memorable scenes occur when Pelecanos’s characters discuss their musical preferences and what they stand for. From this perspective, the novel is very cinematic; indeed, Pelecanos is indebted to the conventions of classic Western movies in his construction of character, his hero’s transgression, and the set-up of a final confrontation.

The characters in Hard Revolution, however, unlike their counterparts in Westerns, are less easily categorized. Although it could be argued that a clear definition emerges between good and evil, not everyone in the novel can be seen in black-and-white terms. Even Hard Revolution’s ruthless killers, Alvin Jones and Hess Walter, have their own lives, and they do not appear in the story merely to make people like Frank Vaughn, a policeman, look good. And while Derek’s brother, Dennis, might fit the stereotype of a jobless, urban, African American attracted to black nationalism or the Nation of Islam’s rhetoric, Pelecanos resists any simplistic characterization of him as the inevitable product of a severely damaged community. Even in terms of music, the characters avoid neat lists as they straddle racial and generational preferences.

Walter Hess gave Stewart much shit about his new found love of R&B. It was true that Stewart had been a rocker way back when, but something had changed in him early in the decade, when he started going to the Howard, down off 7th Street below Florida Avenue, to see the live acts with his friends. Most of the time they were the only whites in the place, but the colored kids were so into the show that there never had been any kind of trouble. (p. 90)

Although music (like sports) is one way of moving beyond narrowly conceived perceptions of culture and race, in the end it is obvious that any possibility of communicating along ethnic and racial lines requires more than just sharing the same taste in music or cheering for the same team. As in most of Pelecanos’s novels, some characters in Hard Revolution have a clear understanding of their own circumstances, and are on the brink of making a change, but they lack the will, means, or good fortune to see it through. Martini, for example,

listened to [his friends’] hate talk but didn’t join in. They were all together on some things but not on that. Martini had been that way himself most of his life, but now he was not. While growing up, he had listened to his father talk constantly about niggers, mostly while drunk, and it had infected him. It took a tour of Vietnam to clean the poison from his blood. It was clear from the start that the men of his platoon were more alike than they ever would have imagined. None of them came from money. None of them fully understood the circumstances that had brought them to Southeast Asia and put them in the line of fire. All watched one another’s backs. In those ways, and in many other ways, they were brothers. (p. 114)

Pelecanos’s story is about turmoil, and the city’s and nation’s turmoil reflect on the characters’ psychological turmoil. Although Derek Strange serves as the main character, the story is polyphonic: we have the educated cop, Derek’s partner, who wants to change the world; the old-fashioned cop, Frank Vaughn, who investigates the senseless murder of a young black man; the Vietnam veteran, Martini, who is unable to escape the destructive patterns of his life and the war; and many others. Although the novel reflects on the racial divide of the city, at the same time the reader can see the similarities between different characters and experiences that cross that divide.

Pelecanos’s return to the late Sixties provides us with a portrait of Derek’s life that illuminates his character and explains his actions in the other novels in which he has appeared; more importantly, it exposes us to the historical realities of the urban experience and its lingering effects on the present. As we all know, Washington’s black neighborhoods still haven’t fully recovered from the explosive events of that time. Investment in employment, housing, and healthcare has still not fully materialized—the return of major league baseball to DC notwithstanding. At the same time, and as I have argued in my previous reviews of his work, Pelecanos does not pathologize the African American urban experience. To the contrary, he portrays its failures and successes, its hope and despair. More significantly, through the characters of Derek and Dennis, he allows African Americans the possibility of playing an active role in their own redemption.

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