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05.24.09

Hardass With a Heart of Gold

Writer of The Wire and 16 hard-boiled novels—including his latest, The Way Home—George Pelecanos’ tough-guy cred lets him cozy up to cops, help troubled teens, and advocate for legalizing pot.

Writer of The Wire and 16 hard-boiled novels—including his latest, The Way Home— George Pelecanos’ tough-guy cred lets him cozy up to cops, help troubled teens, and advocate for legalizing pot.

George Pelecanos refuses to follow the script. A respected crime writer with 16 novels to his credit, including one bestseller, his last three books have nevertheless ventured beyond that genre into 21st-century social realism, exploring the conflicted relationships between fathers and sons. Pelecanos wrote scripts for HBO’s The Wire along with noted compatriots Dennis Lehane and Richard Price, but he also went beyond writing and produced some shows, hoping to better control future depictions of his work.

The 52-year-old writer, speaking before 25 people in Seattle, makes passing reference to the time at 17 when he shot a friend in the face with his father’s .38.

Pelecanos comes across in person as a complex mix of contradictions—a soft-spoken hardass; a life-long lover of movie soundtracks and a devotee of eclectic indie bands (Richmond Fontaine, Silver Jews); a staunch crusader on juvenile-justice issues and marijuana legalization; a concerned husband and father of three minority children (all adopted from other countries); the proud owner of a Mustang GT Coupe modeled on the one that Steve McQueen muscled through the streets of San Francisco in Bullitt; a writing pro whose only career plan is improving each book even after such prolific output.

“I want to write a better one, so that is harder,” Pelacanos says in Seattle. “I don’t write a book just to write one anymore. It has to have something interesting behind it. And it is harder to find subjects now—I’ve used up a lot of the conventions, like a gun going off at the start of a book and developing what happened next.”

Pelecanos’ latest novel is his strongest departure from his earlier police and private detective fiction. The Way Home focuses first on Chris Flynn, a bad-attitude teen whose disdain for his middle-class upbringing lands him in juvenile jail, one of the few white boys in a District of Columbia lockup. Chris is a changed young man when he emerges a year later. His only job prospect is working for his father’s carpet business and that fosters a shaky truce between them, although his father’s acute disappointment in Chris and his choices still remains as transparent as a fake grin.

This affecting examination of awkward familial rapprochement ratchets into something even more intense when Chris and his fellow carpet installer pull up a cutout piece of flooring and discover a gym bag containing $50,000: “ I’ve seen this movie, thought Chris. Innocent, basically good people found some money and decided to keep it, rationalizing their act because the cash belonged to no one...It always ended up bad.” That Chris and Ben decide to let sleeping cash lie and install carpet over it suggests that fate will be averted, but it is soon undone by Ben’s boozy, blabbing to a friend and two ultraviolent ex-cons who want to recover the stash. The story hurtles toward an ominous close while Chris is finally coming to this understanding about his father: “He’s like most people. He’s trying to be good, and most times he is.”

Pelecanos admits there is more of himself in Chris than in his father. The 52-year-old writer, speaking before 25 people in Seattle, makes passing reference to the time at 17 when he shot a friend in the face with his father’s .38, a horrifying accident that scarred both of them, even though no charges were filed. Pelecanos, who describes himself as “an emotional Greek” and “a screamer,” expands on his wayward youth in an interview, saying, “I think back to being a kid and all that longing and confusion I experienced then. I am now a father myself and I love my sons, want only the best for them. Yet there are often inevitable disappointments with them and I always try to remember that I did some of the same shit myself. I should not let myself get tweaked if I find out they are smoking weed.”

A moralist strand, tungsten-strong, runs through Pelecanos’ character and his work. It shows in his unvarnished love for his hometown of Washington, D.C., the setting for all his novels ("It is a distinctly black city, like Atlanta and Detroit, but there is still so much inequality there—a microcosm for America itself. In other places, everybody knows there’s racism but they don’t like to talk about it. In Washington, I can get into an argument about it every day.”).

It shows in Pelecanos’ insistence on walking the streets and riding with the cops he depicts in his novels (“If people read my books, they know it’s earned.... Some writers get what they know about crime from watching TV, but readers recognize that.”) And it shows in his many visits to juvenile prisons and D.C. high schools where he talks about his troubled youth and what he has done since—his window in these days is through DVDs of The Wire. “All I am trying to do is reach one person. I’m not trying to save everybody—just pull one kid through the keyhole.”

Pelecanos drifted plenty. He was in and out of the University of Maryland, including a stint running the diner owned by his father, a Marine Corps vet of World War II combat. Young George’s spotty work history included dishwasher, bartender, salesman of women’s shoes, manager of an appliance store, before he finally turned to writing novels in 1992. He had been a journalism and film major at Maryland until he belatedly discovered a course in crime fiction, reading John D. MacDonald, Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler. The course looked like a fine senior year coast through some hard-boiled paperbacks, certainly nothing life-changing.

“I was not interested in books I had to read in school before because they did not have anything to do with my world,” Pelecanos remembers. “But those crime-fiction books were set in the working-class world I knew. I thought I could do that.”

John Douglas Marshall was the longtime book critic for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer until it ceased publication in March.