King Suckerman and Hard Revolution, by George Pelecanos
Sometimes I get the feeling that George Pelecanos writes his novels with an ADC map book close at hand. In addition to writing and producing The Wire--he got all the gut-wrenching penultimate episodes--he's the author of sixteen crime novels set in and around Washington, DC. And his geography is impeccable; you could navigate the greater DC metropolitan area using nothing but Pelecanos books.
That's not always to their credit. This passage from King Suckerman crystallized the doubts that nagged at me throughout the novel:
They drove north on Wisconsin Avenue, out of the city. Vivian bent forward to light a cigarette in the wind, and when it had burned down to the filter she lit another off the first. She didn't try to argue or make conversation with Karras. Wisconsin Avenue became Rockville Pike.
"Go right there," said Vivian, and Karras turned east onto Randolph Road.
They got over to Viers Mill and made another turn, entering a neighborhood of smallish houses originally offered to World War II veterans on the GI Bill. Vivian was in the place in which she had been raised.
Anybody can follow that route to Vivian's neighborhood; I could even tell you what it looks like today. But until Pelecanos feeds us that one thin line about the smallish houses and the GI Bill, I have absolutely no idea what it looked like in 1976 or who lived there, or what sets it apart from the novel's other locations that are equally defined by their street names and little else. Pelecanos is renowned for writing about the DC you don't see much of in popular culture, the one that extends far beyond Pennsylvania Avenue and Capitol Hill, but King Suckerman pursues its geographic precision at the expense of the human detail that could bring that city to life.
That's a shame, because the book has great promise as prose blaxploitation set at blaxploitation's height. (Pelecanos lavishes enough attention to the city's vanished movie houses that I had to get this book for Christmas.) He gives us a wonderful description of an invented movie that reads like a surreal cross between Superfly and Bertolt Brecht, and the finale captures something of the freewheeling anarchy of DC on a Fourth of July, but otherwise King Suckerman comes across as less than the sum of its meticulously itemized cinematic, musical, and cartographic influences.
Hard Revolution, written several years later, does a much better job of setting the place without relying on street names. The book still has a couple of ADC passages ("They walked the east side of Georgia's 6200 block...") but Pelecanos spends more time evoking an even more alien city, DC in early April, 1968, just before and just after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.
I may not be the most reliable judge here. When Pelecanos describes a chop shop in a lonely stretch of cinderblock and gravel in P.G. County, back when the county was home to white bikers instead of upscale black professionals--that's my neighborhood, and I can still see a few garages that might have stood alongside (if not inspired) Pelecanos's locale. When he records a rally on the steps of Douglass Hall at Howard University--I teach classes there, and I can picture the students filling The Yard. When he locates Derek Strange's apartment building "on the northeast corner of 13th and Clifton, just above Cardozo High School"--I have been in that building, and I've seen the million-dollar view that keeps Strange there. (On the Fourth of July, no less, lining my experience up with King Suckerman, whose climax unfolds just on the other side of Meridian Hill Park.) I can't evaluate the Pelecanos novels with any objectivity because I sit right in the bullseye for their ideal audience. I can't walk away from DC any more easily than Strange can give up his view.
But the local color serves a purpose in Hard Revolution that it was missing in King Suckerman, possibly because Suckerman was about small-time criminals and Revolution is about police. Pelecanos cops don't solve crimes through their ability to spot seemingly innocuous details, deduce improbable chains of events, or read a man's life story from the soil tracked on his shoe. They don't solve crimes through any special knack for getting knocked on the head while shuttling from social caste to social caste either, although you might expect that would be closer to Pelecanos's generic turf. His detectives, police or private, solve crimes because they are all DC locals who can draw on lifelong professional and social networks to identify and locate their suspects. Detective work is a matter of diligently checking in with contacts, or making new ones, a social rather than intellectual trade. In Hard Revolution, a robbery is foiled because a liquor-store employee happens to know one of DC's first black police officers through neighborhood ties; he also, completely by chance, knows Strange's father through the local American Legion post. (This raises a question you could build another novel around--what the hell was going on in a black American Legion post in 1950s DC?--but that ground is left untrodden.) In Pelecanos's world all policing is local, and you can't solve or punish a crime if you're not fully at home in the city where it's committed.
The novel has other virtues. Even non-DC lifers should be able to appreciate Hard Revolution's urgent blending of personal and public history as it chronicles the days (shockingly few) between LBJ's declaration that he would not run for re-election and the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. The riots that followed King's assassination were the most significant event to befall DC in the last sixty or seventy years; some neighborhoods still have yet to recover. Pelecanos smartly intercuts the national and local tragedies with the more personal but equally devastating traumas that befall Derek Strange and his family. The sprawling, citywide nature of the riots puts his penchant for geographic minutiae to good use, and he chronicles the spreading violence with admirable clarity. He also identifies those parties most responsible for the local breakdown without passing easy judgment on them; he simply tracks their actions and lets their incompetence or posturing or inability to foresee the consequences speak for themselves. (Stokely Carmichael does not come off well, nor does the Metropolitan Police Department. I do wish he showed us the confrontation between Walter Washington and J. Edgar Hoover that he alludes to here--that would have been fantastic.)
Hard Revolution is far from perfect--it has a long, aimless prologue and a formulaic salt-and-pepper cop friendship, neither of which go anywhere--but it becomes a lot more than just another ADC crime novel. By writing the story of the 1968 riots, Pelecanos has recorded the terrible birth of the modern DC.