Tuesday, September 25, 2007
On The Floor
George Pelecanos stepped in and revived the genre of Crime Fiction by writing, in fact, Westerns set in D.C. He has always been an unabashed devotee of Westerns (check Amazon for his list of favorites, many of which get a mention in his books), and uses its narrative structure to explore the moral choices his characters are trying to stare down, or avoid making altogether. Often the question becomes, "Who here can afford to be the hero?"
This question lingers in The Night Gardener, the latest Pelecanos to hit the paperback shelves. Other questions surface as well: where does character come from, and how does it assert itself. But Pelecanos is also pushing his own genre into some uncharted waters.
"How do you solve a murder?" asks one of his protagonists at book's end. "Tell me. 'Cause I'd really like to know." There is an existential ambivalence about the larger forces at work in the lives of his characters' and their city. On the face of it, I'd say it looks as if Pelecanos' tenure inside the writers' stable for The Wire has stretched him as a writer. If this is a western, it is more akin to the work of Charles Portis.
I follow this guy's writing career because he's always catching me off-guard, even when he's scratching the narrative itch. And Pelecanos' abilities, prodigious to begin with, just keep growing.
Speaking of Westerns, while visiting the larger fam in Winnipeg this summer, I noticed my first Louis L'Amour sitting on my brother's book shelf. I pulled it and read it in one sitting. Lots of fun to be had: I believe L'Amour wrote on the fly, no notes or plotlines to get in the way of the flow of words. Consequently, when his hero gets cornered, it feels as if the poor dude is really cornered. L'Amour then resorts to the pulp-writer's bag of tricks and pulls one out at random -- a new character to the rescue, an escape route hitherto unseen by the hero (along with the reader), etc.
Actually, as I was reading the book I couldn't help thinking how similar its physics were to that of most First Person Shooter video games. In the first 30 pages, the hero loses his horse, his guns, his boots, his wagon and his wife. Against all odds he eludes capture and staggers back to the fort -- but not until he's searched through the charred ruins of his wagon and retrieved a secret stash of gold sovereigns. A few pages later, the hero guts a baddie with a few lead slugs to the belly, then walks out of the bar to check his horse, then walks back in again. The corpse has disappeared along with any conversational trace that there's been a very public homicide. Some readers might consider this a narrative glitch committed by a careless writer, but this happens so frequently that it becomes clear this is actually one of this genre's Laws of Physics: Dead Baddies Disappear.
Reading L'Amour again I was reminded that there are writers we turn to because we've grown to love their voice. And certainly that's the appeal to James Lee Burke's latest Dave Robicheaux novel, The Tin Roof Blowdown. I mean, sure, I read it for the story: I certainly wanted to see how Dave marshaled his demons to vanquish some larger, darker foe. But more to the point, I wanted to hear what Burke thought of the Katrina catastrophe.
I don't think I'm spoiling it for anyone if I say, Burke is really, really PISSED OFF! He can't get over the stink of death and filth that covers the streets of New Orleans. And he rages against the systemic corruption that practically pounces on the beleaguered survivors, exchanging money in a foul smelling daisy-chain that leads right to the Oval Office. Burke's biblically-tormented heroes would love it if such apocalyptic disasters purged the streets of corruption, but that simply doesn't happen. People who are already struggling with a bad lot in life are forced to go through much, much worse.
As for the story, I'll just say that, after a run of novels that followed an all-too predictable course, it's gratifying to watch Burke stretch his own format. The last two books have been pleasant surprises, varying significantly from the norm. Goes to show you what a pro is capable of when he keeps his nose to the grindstone -- or word processor. Highly recommended.