Drama City by George Pelecanos

Now that my career as a sportswriter and prognosticator has come and gone the Friday review returns with a look at Drama City
by George Pelecanos

Crime thrillers have to start with a bang these days in deference to our much-maligned attention span, that collective fugue state we wander through between thirty second ads and subliminal shots of triple cheeseburgers. Drama City defies convention with a set-up that walks the reader through the lives of Lorenzo Brown and Rachel Lopez, the damaged protagonists of this urban landscape. Lorenzo is walking the line after eight years in prison. Back on the home ground in Washington DC Lorenzo sees things with old eyes, the kids on the corner, the cops on the beat. Lorenzo has a job with the dog police, the Humane Society, and a grim determination to stay away from his old life.

Rachel is Lorenzo’s probation officer. Rachel is leading a double life, struggling with alcohol and high risk sex; good at her job, she cares about her clients like Lorenzo who seem to want to change their lives. At night Rachel is prowling hotel bars dressed to kill or be killed.

Lorenzo knows nothing has changed on the street except the faces. As the story unfolds the reader is drawn into Lorenzo’s austere routine. His old friend Nigel runs the drug corners just the way he used to. The young studs sneer and posture; a dispute over a corner sets the novel’s plot into motion. Lorenzo and Rachel are caught up in the retribution unleashed by brutality and above all, bedrock stupidity.

As a character study the novel makes excellent use of the tension inherent on DC’s uptown streets. Pelecanos employs a lean style and a deliberate pace that establishes his characters and the realities of their world. Theme drives the plot without moralizing or side trips. Cause and effect follow one another with grim efficiency. The volatile mix of guns and greed overlay the simpler hopes of staying sober, staying free, or simply surviving; the novel succeeds as a study of what people don’t want. Lorenzo puts one foot in front of the other, not wanting to be the man he once was; Rachel spends her days paying dues for the night before.

Pelecanos plays the bounce allowing Lorenzo to glimpse love and promise long enough to put it everything at risk. The crisis brings the storylines together as it merges the action with the thematic inevitability of violence. Rachel and Lorenzo, long separated by role and perspective, are united by the savage actions of a psychotic teenager. Rachel walks the same streets as Lorenzo, always mindful of lines she cannot cross; Drama City shows us how these constructs and class distinctions can vanish in a single moment.

The novel doesn’t offer lush descriptors or lingering metaphorical phrases; other reviewers have been kicking Pelecanos around for the dialogue driven no frills approach. I think his prose is perfect for the subject matter and overwriting would have killed the mood it creates. We know what a street corner looks like; Pelecanos shows us what that corner feels like to Lorenzo and Rachel. That’s the novelist’s job and he does it well.