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.


DarkoV said...

I'll have to hit the local library to pick up either of these fast-reads. A fast-read is a welcome addition to the usual plodders and a welcome exercise for fingers that tend toward immobility when it comes to reading.

Whisky Prajer said...

DV - if either of these tickles your fancy I'd be curious to hear of it. Actually, I was wondering if you'd read that interview (not available on-line, alas) between Nick Hornby and The Wire producer David Simon, since it certainly got my brain-pan percolating.

Cowtown Pattie said...

True Confessions: never read Pelecanos. Time to make amends. Amen.

As to L'Amour, I have read a few of his westerns, but I have never been overly fond of them. He seems to be too repetitive in his phrasing, and it distracts me. The last book I read was something a little out of his usual venue- "The Haunted Mesa". Very metaphysical and sci-fi.

DarkoV said...

Aiyyyyy! No, haven't read (nor heard) of that interview. Was it in some magazine? If so, which one and which issue?

Whisky Prajer said...

CP - re: L'Amour, it wouldn't trouble me if I didn't read him again for another 20 years. I remember buddies from college who went tree-planting in the summer (a hallowed Canadian money-maker for college students) complaining that libraries in the outpost towns nearest to their camps would stock nothing but L'Amour. Thinking back, though, I rather wonder if these same libraries didn't also stock a healthy number of Harlequins, too. Anyhoo, one or two summers like that will pretty much "satisfy" most readers!

DV - this is the teaser to the interview I'm thinking of, in the August ish of The Believer. Which was, I thought, a crackerjack issue - if there's a local store with back issues, it's definitely worth a closer look.

paul bowman said...

"Woo, you know dey some bad muthaf---as down in Bawldimore, Home."

"Tru dat, yo."

— heh.

Whisky Prajer said...

Ha! I'm just grateful you didn't choose your quote from the Baltimore-based Hairspray soundtrack. I won't deny it's a snappy musical, but I've heard more than my fill of John Travolta and Michelle Pfeiffer's turgid singing.

paul bowman said...

Apologies, Darrell — no quote, there, just my own foolish bit of faux-real. I feel a bit of a dick for that. (But hey, I'm from Baltimore.) That 'f--- the average reader' opening pricked me to a sneer — though I can't dispute Simon's point, not in narrow application anyway. I should see if I can get hold of the article.

You are gracious, as ever.

Whisky Prajer said...

You are from Baltimore, PB, and I daresay there might be something about the interview that tweaks your imagination, too (bona fides not requried)!