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.