George Pelecanos, “The Big Blowdown” (1996) – George Pelecanos appears to be one of the big crime writing dudes of the last few decades. I first heard of him as a writer for “The Wire.” Or, rather, I heard of him because Ishmael Reed (a “problematic fave” of mine) tore him a new one when Reed was “on one” about “The Wire” being racist and chumpy a few years back. Pelecanos was a secondary target for Reed’s wrath, after Richard Price, but it did call attention to the gallery of big time crime writers who worked on “The Wire,” including Pelecanos (also including Reed’s fellow birthday lecture subject Dennis Lehane, who Reed did not name check in his diss, for whatever reason). So I figured I’d give Pelecanos a read. Sorry, Mr. Reed.
“The Big Blowdown” takes place in Washington DC mostly during the late forties. The soldiers are back home from the war, the dames are sexy, no one leaves home without their “deck” of filterless smokes, and even low-level crooks like the characters in this book dress sharp (the main character is a clothes horse with an interest in women’s shoes- I wonder if Pelecanos is into historical lady footwear? A charming personal detail if so). Pete Karras is a local boy, son of Greek immigrants and combat veteran, who drifts into organized crime with his childhood bestie Joe. He gets into trouble because he’s too nice to working-class immigrants who owe his boss money (the boss and his flunkies all have “old stock” Yankee or German names- wonder if there were many mobs like that running around?). Joe judas-goats Pete into a crippling ass-whooping. Pete leaves the life and becomes a cook at a diner. Joe stays.
This is a crime novel but not a mystery. There is a whodunit of sorts in the background that becomes important to the plot — someone is cutting up sex workers — but it’s pretty obvious quite soon who is doing it and it’s not the point of the book. The point mostly lies with Pete’s relationships and with the historical background/mood. Pete shows what was cool about forties manhood — the dames love him and he can kick ass even when limping — but Pelecanos isn’t shy about what all that cost. Dames love him but he can’t keep a good relationship. He’s married, routinely cheats, can’t connect with his toddler son. He’s something of a loser. When Joe and the mob he still works for come around to shake down the diner where Pete works, Pete and his hardass Greek immigrant employers prepare for a showdown with the mob. “Closure” for Pete and Joe’s relationship — in classic tough-guy fiction fashion, men’s relationships with women (mother excepted) are chapters but relationships with other men are books — and survival for the defiant diner become intertwined. There’s a side plot with a kid from a Pennsylvania steel town trying to find his addict sister in the big city that gets tied in, too.
The main peculiarity here is that the first forty pages or so of the book involve Pete’s childhood and then his service in the war. It establishes Pete’s relationship with Joe, I suppose, and the immigrant milieu in which they live. The war stuff makes clear Pete is a badass. But it seems to me other detective fiction does similar stuff without making such a big thing out of it. I was never especially curious about the childhood of Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe, I have to say. Part of it seems to be Pelecanos’s devotion to immersing the reader in his world. He draws Balzac comparisons from critics, and you can see why that would have attracted the producers of “The Wire.” He doesn’t do a half-bad job with it, either, but I’m not sure it’s the best thing for a crime story, compared to a lighter touch on the characterization and world building. The novel does tighten up considerably towards the end, when the pacing really comes on line, where it counts. All told, not a bad book.
I am developing a thesis that the nineties/early 2000s were an interesting time for crime writing for a few weird reasons. There’s some funny negotiations with sex and race, white tough guy writers dealing with earlier iterations of the “anti-oppression” ideas we see today, taking angles where they can. One of the best crime writers of that era, Eddie Little, a real life ex-con who literary fraud James Frey ripped off, had his characters spool out whole theories of how people of different races should talk to each other (with such rules as “if someone of a given race isn’t there, you can shit talk them all you like”) in between scores. Little wrote two books full of grit and jailhouse braggadocio-turned-flight-of-fancy, then relapsed into heroin use and died, leaving American crime fiction the poorer. As for Pelecanos, his characters, mostly Greeks, interact with black people in ways that make me wonder if they were meant to be rebukes to “political correctness”- a sort of rough and ready equality where both sides interact and rib each other (slurs included) and nobody’s keeping score… Pelecanos has a helpful black gangster give a speech about how he doesn’t want to be integrated, he wants to be on top of his own thing… I don’t think that’s the point of the book at all but it does make me wonder about the genre and the time. ****