Online Edition: Summer 2005

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Drama City

George Pelecanos

Little, Brown and Company ($24.95)

by Jeff Charis-Carlson

After twelve novels that transform the U.S. capital into an urban version of Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha County, readers have learned what to expect from George Pelecanos: well-crafted, geographically-aware tales in which scenes of urban violence reflect the morally compromised choices of even the most stone-cold characters. In his 13th novel, Drama City, Pelecanos continues to explore his well-staked fictional territory.

As the intertwined story of dual protagonists, Humane Officer Lorenzo Brown and Parole Officer Rachel Lopez, the novel continues Pelecanos's fascination with the thin line between legitimate and illegitimate authority in Washington. It features the expected blend of hard working families, imperfect law enforcement officials, and various reformed, reforming, and recidivistic ex-cons. Directly following 2004's Hard Revolution--a historical novel of the 1950s and 1960s packed with an overabundance of Washingtoniana--it would seem to offer another account of just how far the national capital is from "the Game" on the D.C. street.

But if Pelecanos's earlier novels were designed to depict Washington as more human--less politically abstract, less violently caricatured--his new protagonists take the action into hitherto unexplored areas of the city. In fact, the novel humanizes the city by describing how Washingtonians treat their animals. Where the earlier novels expanded readers' image of the city to include ethnic neighborhoods seldom depicted in mainstream D.C. novels, the city revealed by Lorenzo Brown's canine investigations includes the District's most "country" neighborhood, Deanwood, in which second and third-generation migrants continue to raise chicken and goats in their yards and speak with Deep Southern accents.

Brown is typical of Pelecanos's main characters--an African American ex-con who has returned to D.C. with the hope of going straight. His involvement with animal protection gives him a hybrid status in which he is forced to wear a uniform but not allowed to carry a gun, and his bureaucratic authority, coupled with a genuine fondness for dogs, grounds his character in authenticity. Even when he begins to consider lethal revenge against the enemy of a friend, it is his ability to play both sides of "the Game" that illustrates how his Washington is far larger than any single game.

The perspectives on Washington provided by Officer Lopez aren't as startlingly new as those offered by Brown. As a parole officer, the majority of her daytime activities deal with the same "offenders" who populate each of Pelecanos's novels, and her nocturnal drinking binges--in which she transforms from a sexless Jekyll into a sex-kitten Hyde--offer little more than a chance to visit Washington's hotel bars. But her Narcotics Anonymous meetings allow Pelecanos to add success and failure stories from ever more Washingtonians who live and work beyond the gaze of the Capitol dome in their midst.

With this expanded vision of Washington, Drama City also lives up to the fact that it is Pelecanos's first novel whose title refers directly to the D.C. setting -- one of the characters offers the name "Drama City" as a contrast to Washington's "Dodge City" reputation. "It was a city of masks, the kind Nigel had said hung in theaters. Smiling faces and sad, and all kinds of faces in between" (283). It is this tragic-comic perspective that transforms Pelecanos' D.C. into the all-too-human city worthy of its title.


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