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Book Review: Drama City by George Pelecanos

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Reading a George Pelecanos novel is a bit like watching a good documentary – entertaining once in a while, educational at times, and depressing. Such is the case with his latest, Drama City, where he again fills the pages with the gritty realism of life in Washington D.C.

In Drama City he tells the story of Lorenzo Brown, a recovering drug addict adjusting to life as an animal control officer after doing time for drug dealing. He still has friends he sees who continue selling drugs. The book begins this way:

Lorenzo Brown opened his eyes. He stared at a cracked plaster ceiling and cleared his head. Lorenzo was not in a cot but in a clean, full-size bed. In an apartment with doors that opened and shut when he wanted them to. A place where he could walk free.

Lorenzo swung his feet over the side of the mattress. His dog, a medium-size mix named Jasmine, rose from her square of remnant carpet, stretched, and shook herself awake. She came to him, her nails clicking on the hardwood floor, and touched her nose to his knee. He rubbed behind her ears, stroked her neck, and patted her flanks. Jasmine’s coat was cream colored, with tan and brown shotgunned across the fur.

Pelecanos may be better known by some as a writer for the excellent HBO show The Wire. In crafting this review I read reviews of Drama Cityin the New York Times and The Washington Post and concluded that my opinion is smack in the middle of the two reviewers. The Washington Post reviewer complained that Pelecanos’ writing style is missing something crucial: original, fully developed characters that are more than just stereotypes. Additionally, virtually every character – almost exclusively black – either are current or former criminals.

The Post reviewer goes on to suggest that what makes Pelecanos’ writing work on video but not in the book is that actors can more fully develop the characters, providing them with more depth. I think that’s a valid criticism. The New York Times reviewer is more positive, but too supportive, in my opinion.

My opinion of this book shifted numerous times as I read it. Pelecanos writes dialogue amazingly well and I think that’s another reason why having him write for the Wire is a perfect fit. Here is an example of that:

A little girl he recognized, a six-year-old name of Lakeisha, came toward him on the sidewalk, swinging a clear book bag by its strap. Right behind her was her mom, a pretty young hairdresser named Rayne. Rayne was a single mother who undoubtedly led a stressful life but seemed devoted to Lakeisha
and always kept herself looking good. She and her daughter lived beside his grandmother, in the next row house to the south. Lorenzo stopped to let Lakeisha bend down and pet his dog. She had a pretty smile, like her mother’s but near toothless, and cornrows with tiny seashells fitted on the ends of her braids. “Jazz Man’s her name?” said Lakeisha.

“Jasmine,” said Lorenzo, looking at her fondly, barely knowing her but loving her, as she reminded him of his baby girl.

“Is she good?”

“Most of the time.”

Lakeisha touched a finger to her chest. “Does she love people in her heart?”

“Yeah, she loves people. ‘Specially little princesses like you.”

“Bye, Jazz Man,” said Lakeisha, abruptly standing and going up the hill toward her school.

“Thank you, Lorenzo,” said Rayne, smiling shyly.

“For what?”

“For being so nice to my baby.”

“Ain’t no thing,” said Lorenzo, smiling back, puffing his chest up a little and laughing at himself for doing so. Wondering how she knew his name, remembering that he had made it a point to find out hers from his grandmother. Maybe she had done the same.

“I better catch up to her,” said Rayne.

“See you around,” said Lorenzo.

But there were also times when Pelecanos would seem to shift into non-fiction mode, explaining about this or that societal trend or change and that slowed down the story’s pace and got in the way of the excitement. Overall, this is a pretty good book but far fom his best work. Instead of reading Drama City, I would suggest reading an earlier Pelecanos novel, such as Right as Rain or Soul Circus, or watching the Wire.

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About Scott Butki

Scott Butki was a newspaper reporter for more than 10 years before making a career change into education... then into special education. He has been doing special education work for about five years He lives in Austin. He reads at least 50 books a year and has about 15 author interviews each year and, yes, unlike tv hosts he actually reads each one. He is an in-house media critic, a recovering Tetris addict and a proud uncle. He has written articles on practically all topics from zoos to apples and almost everything in between.
  • http://www.fotolog.com/butki13 Scott Butki

    Other readers of Pelecanos out there?

  • Scott Butki

    Received a review copy of his new book today. I can’t wait to read it.

  • Scott Butki

    I interviewed Pelecanos for a recent BC piece.