June 04, 2012

What it Was - How it Is

Like Conrad's Heart of Darkness, the inspiration for Apocalypse Now, George Pelecanos' short novel What it Was is a tale told by a narrator who is partial though he appears objective. Conrad's narrator, Marlowe, tells the story of Kurtz, who ventures into the African jungle and meets himself, and his fate. The hero of What it Was, Derek Strange, tells the story of his own journey into manhood and responsibility.

Readers of Pelecanos will know Strange from previous books, first a trilogy where we met him as an older private detective working in Washington DC; then in Hard Revolution, a book set during the Washington Riots of 1968, when Strange was a street cop. Strange is perhaps well-named for, like Kurtz, he is an anomaly in his environment - a black cop in a largely white police force. Throughout the sequence of books he sees himself as an outsider, which allows Pelecanos to throw an objective light on the environment in which he works. In other words, we side with Strange and see the situations he encounters 'from the outside'. This is emphasized in What it Was by the fact that Strange narrates the book as a long story to his friend Nick Stefanos ... ironically another character in a separate series of books by Pelecanos.
Pelecanos writes in his preface that the book was founded on two headlines he encountered while researching another novel - first, the burglary in the Watergate building in 1972 that unraveled Nixon's presidency. Second, a headline concerning a celebrated Washington criminal, Raymond "Cadillac" Smith. So Pelecanos is in effect writing a historical novel about that prehistoric era, 1972. 'What it Was' is both a catch-phrase used within the book by two criminals and a description of what that time was like, in that place, for these people. The author is intent on capturing the mores, the attitudes, the look and the sound of that period and, perhaps, linking it to the current environment. What it was has led to What it is.

To do this, Pelecanos is extremely precise in his details. In his previous books he has always demonstrated a keen ear for the music played and listened to by his characters. This helped place them in their environment and positioned them in their culture: these are the types of people who listened to this kind of music. In What it Was, he ramps this precision up and extends the descriptions further, to cars and clothes:
As she did it, “Mr. Big Stuff” came from the clock radio on the desk. Strange saw her nod her head to the rhythm and the syncopated shake of one of her feet.
  “You like this one?”
  “Hard to get it out of my head. OL doesn’t help, either. They play it all the time.”
  “All groove, no melody,” said Strange. “But what a groove.”
  Jean Knight, he thought, from New Orleans. Stax single number double-0-88. Originally recorded for the Malaco/Chimneyville label out of Jackson, Mississippi. Strange still catalogued this arcane data in his mind.
IT WAS a Plymouth Fury, the GT Sport, a two-door 440 V-8 with hidden headlamps and a four-barrel carb. The color scheme was red over white, and its vanity plates read “Coco.”
He, too, was tall. He wore patch-pocket jeans and two-tone brown Flagg Brothers stacks with three-inch heels and curlicue white stitching on the vamps. His loud-print rayon shirt, tails-out, had collars big as spears.
It would be easy to read these precise descriptions as Pelecanos working out his own obsessions with music, cars and clothes, but they serve a structural function in the book - they show what's important to the characters. They can talk about the music, they understand the importance of the right colour-scheme on a car, they too know what their clothes are saying about them to anyone smart enough to understand. Pelecanos describes them so we can see (and perhaps remember from that time) but also so that we get the measure of these people and their priorities. Bret Easton Ellis' American Psycho took this 'consumer porn' to its ultimate extreme, but Pelecanos - like Ian Fleming before him - is using brands and product details to tell us something about his characters.

The writer's other tactic to get us into his characters' thinking is his dynamic and flexible prose. His language reflects their actions as the characters themselves would describe them:
A couple of ladies visited. One of them, a nice little deep-dark girl who was put together right, offered to get Strange high, and they went out back to the alley, where she produced a number and fired it up. Grady Page joined them for a minute. He and Strange shotgunned each other, then Strange did the same for the girl, whose name was LaVonya. Page went back inside to do his thing.
'... put together right', 'produced a number', 'shotgunned each other', 'back inside to do his thing'. All of these phrases put us directly into the heads of the characters so that we share their experience and don't observe it critically. Later in the same scene, however, Pelecanos shows how Strange remains self-aware enough to step outside of himself and observe:
... and Strange was higher than a Denver hippie as he drank another beer, the instrumental middle of the song building emotionally, almost violently, taking him up, Strange knowing that he was young and in the midst of something, a music, dress, and cultural revolution that was happening with his people, in his time. Where it was going he had no clue, but he was glad to be a part of it.
Another angle of observation is offered by the other major protagonist, Frank Vaughn, a white cop who, like Strange, is working an aspect of the case that is the subject of the book. Vaughn is by no means the standard old-time racist cop, but he does see himself as the victim of a changing demographic in Washington:
HE HAD lunch at the counter of the Hot Shoppes on Georgia Avenue, in Brightwood Park, up around Hamilton. In its parking lot had been the famous fight between three badass white greasers and a dozen or so motivated coloreds, back in the ’60s. The fight had carried over to the other side of the street. Those white boys could mix it up. That kind of balls-out, bare-knuckled hate conflict was done now, too, thought Vaughn with nostalgia. The blacks had taken over the city, and race rumbles had gone the way of drop-down Chevys, Link Wray club dates, and Ban-Lon shirts.
Vaughn gives Pelecanos the opportunity to show things from a different perspective - the cop who works well enough with black people, but nonetheless sees his role as participating in a 'war'. As a decorated ex-military man, Vaughn sees things very clearly in black-and-white, whereas Strange is conscious that the social change going on around him is blurring the edges. Vaughn is about clearing up cases and finding the bad guys. Strange - perhaps like Conrad's Kurtz - 'goes native', taking drugs, sleeping around, and knowing that the times are in flux. For Vaughn, perhaps the social changes will inevitably lead to a decline of some sort; for Strange, at least in 1972, the change might be one for the better.

Finally, Pelecanos makes it clear in the last chapter that history is always at least partially fiction, 'made up' in order to make a narrative seem complete:
“You weren’t a witness to that. So how do you know what was said and done?”                      “I don’t know, exactly. Some of that shit? I filled in the gaps and made it up. I mean, it’s true if I say it is. Print the legend, right?”
Strange and Vaughn may have different perspectives on the events of the book, but in the end it doesn't matter because memory creates its own narratives in order to make sense of the past. The story of Raymond "Cadillac" Smith and the events of the Watergate scandal - the two headlines from 1972 that initiated this book - are now history but are also part of a collective narrative, some of which is true, some maybe not. Pelecanos demonstrates that in fact you can write the history you want, which is both entertaining and disturbing in its implications.

So what can writers learn from Pelecanos and his approach to this short book?

Structurally, the narrative is divided into four streams - Strange, Vaughn, the characters surrounding Red "Fury" Jones and a pair of Mafia hoods dispatched to retrieve cash from Jones. This means that Pelecanos can shift the point of view very quickly, thus maintaining our interest as we catch up with what the characters are doing. While the book is divided into chapters, the viewpoint shifts within chapters, often after a page or so, leading to a sense of momentum and inevitability as all the streams come to a head and collide.

Two other technical elements are important: flexing your language to reflect that of your characters; and the use of precise detail to describe the cultural and social environment in which your narrative is taking place. Pelecanos uses this latter element repeatedly to help us see the characters in their exact time, almost as if they're pinned on a board like psychedelically-dressed butterflies. Using language to capture the thought-processes of your characters is a typical novelistic tactic, but Pelecanos uses it extraordinarily well to help us inhabit the minds of characters some of whom are probably as alien to us as it's possible to be.


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