Saturday, October 15, 2005

Pulpy Pleasures

I just finished reading my sixth crime novel by George Pelecanos -- Soul Circus. This guy gets better with every book. He doesn't waste a lot of time feeling about for subject matter. The racial tensions in Washington, DC strike a consistent discordant background music to his work; for the most part, they simmer and hum without authorial comment. Pelecanos sets up one or two basically good guys with bad habits, set in the path of at least one character who is just plain mean. Between these groups are precise and evocative bit-players who are ordinary in their desires and failings. These "little people" either become the villain's next victim, or demonstrate some heroic quality that sets them apart from the miserable creatures they once were.

Ah, but my recital of the formula is nothing new. It's not the formula that works, it's Pelecanos' touch. His dialogue is informed by the best of television and movie dialogue. It can be suggestive at times, but its function is to flesh out character, and the characters' function is to further the plot. (I'd love to check out his shot at TV, The Wire, by all accounts a gripping drama that deserved a better fate.) Dennis Lehane belongs to this category, too, but where Lehane's Kenzie/Gennaro novels occasionally trip over the expected conventions (easy coincidences, or a fantastic revelation trotted out at the last minute), Pelecanos' generic intention remains tightly focussed on bringing everything to an explosive climax.

And he typically succeeds. He has said the original Dirty Harry movie remains one of his most significant influences, and you can see it. His novels have at least one criminal who has purposely descended into deliberate cruelty, a bad guy who simply has to be stopped. If there is anyone halfway normal in this creep's vicinity, the reader takes note, and follows the emotional cues. It works, and Soul Circus finds Pelecanos in impressive form.

Another surprising page-turner is the collected Comics Journal Interviews with Frank Miller: 1981-2003. It's hard for me to put my finger on what made these long, exhaustive interviews such compelling material, but the bald fact is I couldn't put this book down until I'd read every last page.

Staying focussed on the words was hard work, sometimes -- the book is lavishly garnished with sublime examples of Miller's art, much of it expanded to a size that highlights his penchant for dramatic contrast. After the first interview (a charming portrait of a kid with a lot of sand), I checked the hour on my alarm clock, and decided I'd better look at the pictures in the morning.

He talks evocatively about his early days as a starving artist from the small town who comes to NYC with big dreams, and succeeds by sheer determination and force of talent (surprise! - he's read Ayn Rand!). It amused me to hear his early support of the arcane Comics Code. But why not? Just look at what he managed to express within its strictures!

Less than ten years on, he becomes a noisy champion of the First Amendment, angrily denouncing all attempts at censorship, including DC's empty gesture of printing "advisories" on its covers. The TCJ interviewers are a surprisingly critical bunch, and demonstrate character of their own by pushing him to more clearly articulate his consideration of the issue. It's a spirited exchange that reveals that Miller's censorship concerns are, at the outset, no more elevated than simple self-interest: he did the work, and he'll be damned if anyone tries to put the kybosh on it.

The issue of censorship continues to dog him (and he, it), and he gradually becomes more articulate in his defense. His perspective on the industry also undergoes several sea-changes. With the initial success of his Sin City books, his contempt for his roots as a "Marvel plantation worker" is nearly total. In 2003, however, we find him pining for those early days when artists ate, drank, slept and drew together (usually out of economic necessity - he and his kind were originally paid $25 a page for their work, and denied all royalties).

Not everyone will find this as compelling as I did. Some hidden aspect of my personality wanted to be a comic book artist, I guess, and anyone who is remotely curious about the (American) industry's occasional flashes of brilliance will find a great deal to feast on in this delicious book.


Bleak Mouse said...

I've never read a novel by George Pelecanos; for doubtlessly peculiar reasons I tend not to read any novel written within the last fifty years anymore. But Mrs Bleak and I have been quite taken with "The Wire" in recent days -- so much so that we are well into viewing rental discs of the second season. It's certainly more gripping by far than its nearest contenders -- "The Sopranos" and "The Shield," which also had us knuckle-chewing in recent months.

On a previous matter, I heartily endorse DarkoV's recommendation of Peter DeVries. In the 1970s, I used to breathlessly buy up any novel of his I hadn't yet read. If not the funniest novelist ever, he's certainly in the top five -- and, if one might be irreligious and nominate a merely "comic" novelist -- one of the modern greats.

Whisky Prajer said...

Aye! Was not aware that The Wire was still alive! Happy to hear it, especially as the two contenders you mention have slipped in my personal assessment.

As for DeVries, the man clearly had humour to spare. Blood of the Lamb, however, is something altogether ... special.

jult52 said...

You're bring too easy on the Kenzie/Gennaro books by Lehane, which range from the painfully bad to the pedestrian. (Lehane's work since he left the private eye genre are entirely a different matter.) But thanks for the Pelecanos recommendation. You're not the first to praise him and I will try one of his books.

Whisky Prajer said...

I'm not a fan of the K/G books, but you are right about Lehane's post-private eye stuff: they are indeed in a league of their own. I was caught entirely off-guard by Mystic River, and wondered if Lehane had it in him to repeat the stunt. I've just started Shutter Island, so we'll see.