x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Crime bosses

Are Elmore Leonard and George Pelicanos more than highly refined genre writers? Here is the argument for the affirmative.

Elmore Leonard at a book signing for his latest novel, Up in Honey's Room.
Elmore Leonard at a book signing for his latest novel, Up in Honey's Room.

In Stephen King's novel, The Dark Half, a writer of respected, well-reviewed literary fiction makes so little money that, under a pseudonym, he churns out a series of blood-and-guts thrillers that bring in the big bucks. When George A Romero filmed King's novel, he included a scene with the writer's agent explaining that he read the litterateur because it was his job but that he read the thriller writer because it was fun.

Are we perpetually in danger of underestimating what we enjoy? It would seem strange to talk of underestimating either Elmore Leonard or George Pelecanos. Both of these crime fiction writers have had substantial careers (Leonard's stretching over 50 years) and both have found critical acclaim. Most famously, Martin Amis said of Leonard that he and Saul Bellow were in agreement that "for an absolutely reliable and unstinting infusion of narrative pleasure in a prose miraculously purged of all false qualities, there [is] no one quite like Elmore Leonard."

Leonard's sardonic thrillers, highlighted by his uncanny ear for the way his characters talk, have made him one of the masters of voice in contemporary American fiction. And Pelecanos's success as a writer and producer on the cable-television series The Wire focused attention on his novels about inner-city Washington, DC, the city that exists beyond the familiar iconic images that seem to be all the media shows of that city. 

Both Leonard, with Road Dogs, and Pelecanos, with The Way Home, have new novels that hit the bookstores recently. Which is to say that there's a bonus at hand in American fiction: these are two of the best contemporary American novelists - not genre novelists, not crime-fiction writers, but novelists, period.  Still, those of us who read crime fiction (or write about it) often feel as if we have to make a special case for it as something more than entertainment.

Defensiveness is not a good foundation from which to argue for the virtues of a writer or a genre. Even worse is the frequent argument that a work or author has transcended the genre, which implies that they've managed to make something good out of something that wasn't worth doing in the first place. So, without apologies or excuses, let's say that Leonard's Road Dogs is a master's flawed work, and Pelecanos's The Way Home is another entry in a body of work he is now attempting about inner-city life.

Road Dogs is something of a reunion of Leonard characters. Chief among them is Jack Foley, the bank robber of Out of Sight (played by George Clooney in Steven Soderbergh's film) who, when last seen, was heading off to prison after an escape and a fling with the federal marshall Karen Sisco brought him a brief bout of freedom. Characters from Leonard's earlier novels Riding the Rap, La Brava, and Maximum Bob also show up.

The plot of Road Dogs sees Jack getting his 30-year sentence reduced through the intercession of a tough, smart attorney who takes professional pride in proving to the powers that be that she's able to beat them. Jack owes his association with her to Cundo Rey, a rich Cuban immigrant he's befriended in the joint. Cundo, who's also nearing the end of his sentence, proposes that Jack become his house guest in Los Angeles, working with Cundo's girlfriend, Dawn, a phony spiritualist, to bilk rich widows. It doesn't take long for Dawn to entice Jack into her scheme to bilk Cundo.

In the hands of most writers, that set-up would lead to something right out of The Postman Always Rings Twice, with pent-up feelings cascading into violence. But for Leonard, it's the set-up for comedy. Road Dogs is deadpan farce with other characters, like the rogue FBI agent convinced Jack is about to start robbing banks again, threading through the plot. Unfortunately, the number of threads Leonard introduces winds up obscuring the main plot and giving the book an occasionally sluggish feel. And though his dialogue is as sharp as ever, his insistence here on telling so much of the plot through dialogue makes it seem, at times, as if a fog of voices has descended. Still, a master having an off day is still a master at work, and the seen-it-all flippancy of Leonard's prose remains one of the joys of contemporary American literature.

That kind of flipness is what Pelecanos has gradually left behind. The Way Home, like his previous novel, The Turnaround, involves the conflict between fathers and sons, as well as the racial and class conflicts that can prove to be even more poisonous. Pelecanos is a classic, unashamed liberal. His fiction has been consistent and conscientious in rejecting the depiction of urban America in the nightmare terms in which it is frequently presented.

Refusing to be satisfied with the cliché of the urban jungle, Pelecanos gives us people who have been living in those battered neighborhoods, some of them for years, who are not just living their lives but attempting to keep the lives of their communities vital. Without ever addressing race or class issues directly or making speeches, he shows how the values that right wingers from Reagan on down have ascribed solely to small-town Americans surviving in urban environments that have been caricatured mostly as pits of crime.

What cuts across the races of his characters are the frustrations of people in an age where the promise of America is receding. Modest ambitions - the chance to better yourself, to earn a decent paycheque or find a decent place to live - can, in the economic brutality at loose in the land, seem as impossible as a dream.  This is the aura that permeates Pelecanos's work in The Way Home and in the novels that have preceded it: The Turnaround, The Night Gardener and the Derek Strange/Terry Quinn trilogy.

In the new book, Tom Flynn, a man who's made a modest career with his carpeting business, watches in frustration as his teenage son, Chris, drifts into a dumb life of petty crime, wasting his academic and athletic promise, and finally winding up in a juvenile prison. The novel jogs ahead a few years to find Chris released, working for his father alongside Ben, one of the boys he was incarcerated with. They're both trying to maintain their new responsible lives, especially as some of their old acquaintances sink back into their former lives.

But Chris can't escape the brunt of his father's frustrations. Tom looks at his son and sees not the young man trying to get his life on track but the life Chris could have had. With the almost classical inevitability of a fable, Pelecanos puts temptation in Chris and Ben's path in the form of a cache of money hidden under the floorboards of a house they're carpeting. It would be unfair for readers to tell what happens from there. But suffice to say the story is taut, hard without being unnecessarily brutal, heartbreaking without going soft. That last quality could describe Pelecanos, too. 

To borrow from the right-wing cliché about liberals, Pelecanos is the least bleeding heart liberal you could imagine. He has no truck with the progressive fantasy that with the right social programmes and opportunities, everyone can be saved. Some of his most uncompromising writing comes in the scenes with the characters who - whether through resentment, a sense of entitlement, or a paralysing sense of victimhood - have cut themselves off from the realities of the compromises the world demands. These characters who will not swallow even an ounce of pride to keep the crummy job that will at least keep them away from trouble are doing themselves in, and Pelecanos doesn't pretend otherwise.

In The Way Home, these characters aren't the only ones who cut themselves off. The Flynns - Chris, his parents Tom and Amanda - have, in various ways, cut themselves off from each other. The love remains in Tom and Amanda's marriage, but the friendship is leaking out. Pelecanos has an uncanny sense for conveying what isn't said in the bruised silences that exist between these two. And he captures how the typical adolescent estrangement that can exist between fathers and sons has, in Chris and Tom's case, grown into a stubborn habit that Chris's adulthood does little to thaw.

Because Pelecanos has a loving respect for classic narrative forms, the crime novel and the western in particular, his novels often seem to recall those genres - not so much in convention but in the gradual revelation of the values the characters hold, the point past which they have to stand for what they believe in. The climactic scenes of The Way Home, involving a young man who didn't take Chris or Ben's path and who realises too late the mess he's made of his life, could easily seem a series of sentimental gestures if Pelecanos did not imbue them with a resigned fatalism. In his hands, even this wasted life suddenly seems fraught with potential that's being uncovered too late.

The Way Home is a terrific novel, shrewd, moving, pared down in language so that nothing gets in the way of the keen expression of emotion. For Pelecanos, the one unforgivable sin is waste. Those who squander their lives in his book are fools mistakenly entrusted with a precious gift.