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D.C. Burning

Washington Novelist George Pelecanos Brings His Crime Fiction to the Fiery Summer of 1968

Emily Flake

Hard Revolution

Publisher:Little, Brown & Co.

By John Barry | Posted 3/17/2004

George Pelecanos has been the crime writer laureate of Washington, D.C., proper for about a decade, but in the last few years the city's racial climate has morphed from a mere backdrop for his stories into a central focus of his writing. Hard Revolution is proof of this. In the summer of 1968, immediately after the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination, huge sections of Washington went up in flames during a week of riots. The H Street corridor and large sections of Shaw were demolished, along with their black neighborhoods. Many of those areas still haven't recovered. With this as his setting, Pelecanos crafts one of the most gripping, painful novels to come out of our nation's capital in a long while.

Pelecanos approaches the period by weaving several story lines and characters into a plot that climaxes in summer of '68, as the city bursts into flames. Derek Strange, the middle-aged investigator of Pelecanos' Hell to Pay from 2001 and last year's Soul Circus, is now back in his 20s, starting out his career as a black rookie cop on a largely white police force. His older brother, Dennis, is going nowhere fast, spouting Stokely Carmichael and hanging out with the coke-snorting, gun-toting Alvin Jones and Kenneth Willis, who are waiting to rob the local grocer. Meanwhile, two white greasers--Buzz Stewart and Walter Hess--are chasing down young college-bound black kids with their hot rod. Mo Vaughn, old-school white cop, Strange, the young realist, and Troy Peters, Princeton-educated idealist liberal cop, all wind up homing in on this 50-50 mix of villains.

Pelecanos seems on his way to creating a new genre: the equal-opportunity, multiethnic, hard-boiled, historical epic. This is much more than a whodunit or even a revenge novel; it's the story of a city falling apart at the seams. But given the broad reach of this novel, some of the flaws that might be forgivable in a pulp crime story stick out here. The treatment of women, for instance: "He'd fucked her strong, and she had given that strength back in equal measure. Her thighs were in spasm when they were done." The position of female characters in this novel is usually contingent on that of their sexual partners, but it seems that if D.C. is going to serve as a template for social upheaval in Hard Revolution, some of its women should be allowed their own perspectives. It's a Camille Paglia kind of dig, I know, but it's a glaringly weak spot in this book.

Then there's the fact that, for a guy who wants to stretch the limits, Pelecanos can be awkwardly formulaic in his approach. He seems afraid that if one piece of the ethnic puzzle is unrepresented the whole picture will collapse. Indeed, he's compulsive about giving everyone--every guy, at least--a piece of the action. The White Working Class, the Educated Black, the Militant Black, the Vietnam Vet, the Old School White Cop, etc. --they all have to be part of this, and by the time we learn their cigarettes and singers of choice they seem to be drawn from marketing surveys. Pelecanos has his finger on the city's pulse, but he's much less successful at getting under the skin of his characters. When he tries to channel the libido of a black drug dealer, let's face it, it ain't happening. And just to even the score, he, as a nearly middle-aged white writer himself, doesn't do that well with the middle-aged white cop, either.

But don't just wait for the movie, although it might be worth buying the rights. Pelecanos hits his stride when he returns to the old-school, hard-boiled tone. Some of his greatest writing, for instance, appears in his dead-on, unadorned catalog of the events leading up to the '68 riots. As Pelecanos gradually ratchets up the background noise--the rumbles of discontent that had been growing for about a year--his voice grows steady while his writing remains cool and unforgiving. With chilly precision, he shows us one store after the next, by name and address, falling to looters and arsonists. But when the rioters start to move into the streets, throwing Molotov cocktails and turning their own neighborhoods into a wasteland, Pelecanos clips his prose down to the shimmering, heartbreaking essentials and stands back to watch it all burn. And that, whether he wants to admit it or not, is what he does best.

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