George Pelecanos writes books about D.C. And crime. If you’re from, or live in, D.C., these books give you a big (but perhaps cheap) thrill by simple recognition of names, places, and musicians. The real cheap thrills in these books come from the macho action, revenge tales, and gunplay. Beyond these superficial aspects, this author has actually written some good stories, and maybe even one or two great novels (my favorite is King Suckerman). Recently, Pelecanos has written the Strange Investigations trilogy, centered on private detective Derek Strange, as well as his shaky friendship with a fellow ex-cop, the younger, fiery Terry Quinn. Hard Revolution is a prequel to this trilogy, a sort of creation tale, if you will. It’s supposed to have some real social and historical significance too, as it involves the 1968 riots. These aspects have earned it critical attention, and the recently printed paperback edition has a flattering quote from the New York Times Book Review. So it’s too bad that this book falls flat on its face.
I can’t think of any reason why Hard Revolution should stand by itself. It turns out that the book’s purpose is merely to wrap up loose ends left in the trilogy, such as Strange’s reason for leaving the police force, how his brother was murdered, and other secrets that readers of the much stronger Hell To Pay will know. It is about how, during the span of a few days, your whole life may never be the same again, and you can suddenly become the person you will be for the rest of your life. All well and good, but I would like to hold the prequel up to a higher standard – it should further explain details of the previous work, but also present a strong story of its own (in film, Coppola’s The Godfather, Part II comes to mind as a good example). This book fails to do so.
In the Strange Investigations trilogy, the events of Spring 1968 are referred to in a vague and enigmatic manner, creating a large buildup. In Hard Revolution, though, things just, well, they just kind of happen. Also, a long introduction (almost one-fifth of the book) and a very large bank robbery subplot detract from the main storyline. Eventually, the central plot is revealed to be rookie Officer Derek Strange’s weighing of how to seek justice for his brother’s death. Meanwhile, history (President Johnson’s resignation, King’s assassination, and rioting) happens. Attempts to provide historical context, though, sound like they are copied and pasted directly from a history text. The reader does not need to know that, “Troops from the Sixth Armored Cavalry were called in from Fort Meade, Maryland, as were the Third Infantry troops of Company D of Fort Meyer, Virginia. The Third would guard the Federal City and police Seventh Street….” I even chuckled when Derek’s mother says that if Robert Kennedy were elected president, “at least there’d be hope.” The author’s effort to create dramatic irony instead felt like a cruel joke to this reader.
I did enjoy some parts of the book, including discussions of the ’68 cultural texts The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly, and Eldridge Cleaver’s Soul On Fire. Derek muses to his date who doesn’t understand the spaghetti western’s moral distinctions, “White hat, black hat, you mean John Wayne and all that?… That’s over baby. The movies finally be getting’ around to how the world is. Complex.” You could say that this is a simple or cheap way to mirror the character’s own moral development, but the fact is that these texts intersect with history and influenced real people’s understanding of the world in the same way. These scenes do make the novel compelling at certain points. Overall, though, the lofty ambitions this novel holds drag it down.
Pelecanos’s most recent book, Drama City, is about redemption. That works for me, because the author has redeemed himself by writing it. This work is a fraction of Hard Revolution’s size, yet has a concise plot and much more thematic content. Instead of the previous book’s chronology, the story takes place in a span of time hardly more than forty-eight hours.
This story is the first Pelecanos has written in years with a new lead character. The protagonist this time around is Lorenzo Brown, a paroled gangster trying to make a fresh start working with the city’s Animal Control unit. Before the end of the book, he will be tempted, for convincing reasons, to reenter the life of crime and violence. Readers also learn about his parole officer, Rachel Lopez, a troubled soul with whom Lorenzo can connect. As any reader could predict, their lives intertwine in a dramatic way, but not in too clichéd a fashion. The restraint Pelecanos uses in preventing these two characters from getting anywhere near hooking up is a tasteful touch.
Also admirable is the dominant theme, which is simple and effective. People, according to this book, can be divided into two types: those who do and do not clean up their shit. In the first scene, Lorenzo takes his dog for a stroll, only to be eyed mockingly by local thugs. "Lorenzo could only imagine what had been said as they looked at him, a square in a uniform, working for rent money and nothing more, holding a bag of shit in one hand and the leash of a dog, and not even a fighting dog at that, in the other. Time was, Lorenzo Brown would have laughed at the sight of his self too." But on the job, Brown uses the power of the law to force people to literally clean up their shit. The moral is that always taking responsibility is the only path to self-fulfillment, and shortcuts like thuggery are always defeating.
Pelecanos also has his trademark clichés here, from which the book suffers. There is always the ugly, sadistic villain, in this case Rico Miller, a young tough marked by "a thin, wolfish face... [with] a strange, gap-toothed smile... indifferent to an early death." Another recurring element is the author’s favorite euphemism for female genitalia, “her sex.” Why this guy really needs to talk about that special place in so many of his books is debatable in the first place.
Since this local author dude can write a good, tight story like Drama City, knows his tunes, and knows his local history, at least there’s hope for another semi-epic of his like Hard Revolution to be successful. I’ll be looking forward to see what lies ahead.
Hard Revolution: 4/10
Drama City: 7/10