George Pelecanos is perhaps the most prolific of contemporary Washington novelists, publishing eight books set in the District of Columbia in as many years. But where others zoom in on Georgetown dinner parties and shady deals in mahogany-paneled offices, Pelecanos takes the reader even further behind the scenes, to liquid lunches at seedy Southeast dives and epic shootouts in back alleys where the Capitol Dome isn't even a flicker on the horizon.
"Growing up here, the federal government is just not part of your life," Pelecanos told PW on a recent afternoon in his modest two-story bungalow in Silver Spring, Md., just over the District line. "People always say this is a transient town, but it's not. It only seems that way if you exclude the invisible man" -- the large majority of the city that is black.
With Shame the Devil, published by Little, Brown, Pelecanos continues his long-term project of mapping the social history of the real, workaday, multiracial city from the '30s to the present through the unlikely medium of the hard-boiled crime novel. The book is based in part on the infamous Starbucks murders, a 1996 crime that went unsolved until a few months ago. In true diehard, local-boy fashion, Pelecanos transfers the action from a multinational Seattle-style coffee bar to an old-school D.C. pizza parlor. He also returns in loving detail to the Spot, the down-at-the-heels cop bar where his longtime fictional alter ego, Nick Stefanos, has been working and drinking on and off since Pelecanos's second novel.
One reviewer has called Pelecanos, with his close attention to the routines of hash slingers, car jockeys, drug runners and other working people, "the Zola of Washington," a reference he freely admits he had to look up. "Growing up, I was always a movie freak," he says. "That's where my sense of story comes from." The movies have also been a second pole of an increasingly successful career. Until recently, he was manager of Circle Films, a local independent best known for producing the C n brothers first three movies and for breaking John Wu's The Killers in the U.S. Before the interview begins, Pelecanos fields a call about a deal with Sean "Puffy" Coombs's Bad Boy Films about bringing King Suckerman, Pelecanos's funk- and pot-fueled 1997 tribute to the blaxploitation movies and the general craziness of the '70s, to the big screen. Another project, a screenplay about Harlem kids caught up in the nascent crack trade of the early '80s, has just been greenlighted by Miramax.
For all his streetwise fictions, at home the poker-faced and darkly handsome Pelecanos is the very picture of the kind of good anthropos his wayward antiher s' Greek mothers are always urging them to set down roots and become. As the conversation begins, his wife, Emily, starts hustling their three children out the front door, past the framed Pelecanos book jackets flanking a large charcoal portrait of "the mayor of Silver Spring," a longtime town bum who died recently. But first there are introductions to Nick, 8, Pete, 6, and Rosa, 2 1/2. The boys, both adopted from Brazil (their sister is from Guatemala), aren't named for Nick Stefanos or Pete Karras, the ill-fated short-order cook from 1996's The Big Blowdown. "They're just good Greek names," Pelecanos says. He himself grew up in Silver Spring and D.C.'s Mt. Pleasant neighborhood, speaking a little of the language and shooting a lot of hoops with buddies from his Orthodox church. His friends, he says, are still mostly the "ethnic guys" he grew up with, and he sees a lot of his parents and 95-year-old grandmother. "They're one of the reasons I'm still in the area," he says. "I believe in hanging with the family."
Not that the increasingly hot Pelecanos doesn't have other offers. Four months ago, he left his job at Circle Films in order to write part-time in New York for a new ABC series set at Bellevue hospital. He lasted two days. "I left a lot of money on the table," he says. "But I thought my kids needed a middle-class dad who was living at home more than they needed a rich dad living in New York."
As if on cue, Nick bursts back in the door, about four-foot-six and almost as wide across in his football uniform. "This is the part where she g s, ˜Then he comes in with his broad shoulders...,'" Pelecanos jokes as Nick leans close to the tape recorder and starts shouting, "Hi, little radio thingy! I'm Nick Pelecanos, son of George Pelecanos! I play flanker and quarterback." "He's good, too," his father adds.
Pelecanos was more of a basketball fan growing up, something that makes its way into his books' evocations of pick-up games and NCAA tournaments spent glued to the TV set. He habitually packs his books with his own experiences and obsessions, whether it's cruising the streets of D.C. in muscle cars blasting Curtis Mayfield in the '70s, working his father's old restaurant at 19th and M Street, or club hopping in the burgeoning D.C. underground scene in the '80s.
When it comes to the graphic violence of his books, Pelecanos is also writing what he knows. "It's no secret that I was involved in a gun accident when I was a kid," he says. "It was the typical thing you read about in the paper. I blew off the side of my best friend's face with a .38 special."
His friend, Pelecanos says, is "fine." He now describes himself as "rabidly antigun," though he admits to going out into the woods and firing a few rounds with his friends in the name of research and recreation. "I'd be a hypocrite to say I don't enjoy having a gun in my hand," he says. "And I'd be a hypocrite to say there's not a visceral kick to writing a lot of the apocalyptic violence I write. But I do want to show what the results are. It's not clay pigeons, man. What a bullet does to a person is horrible."
Life of Crime
Pelecanos hardly grew up imagining a successful literary career. At the University of Maryland, where he majored in film studies, he signed up for a class in the hard-boiled novel simply because he thought it would be easy. "The teacher really got me amped about books, and these kinds of books in particular," he recalls. "I saw that they could be looked at as literature about working-class people. There were always lots of stories living in my head. But I thought writers were Waspy guys with Harris tweeds and suede patches on their elbows, not Greek kids like me who worked in carryout shops."
Pelecanos put himself through college by selling women's sh s on straight commission -- "the best job I ever had," he says. After graduation, he spent a decade working bars, kitchens and retail, hustling sales floors all over D.C. (he met his wife in 1978 when they both were working the holiday rush at the Gap) -- and reading voraciously in his spare time. By 1988, he was running a chain of electronics stores not unlike Nutty Nathan's, the discount outlet where Stefanos does time before breaking out to become a process server and freelance investigator. "Then I had an early midlife crisis," Pelecanos recalls. "The next step would've been to get my own business, but instead I decided I wanted to be a writer."
So he quit and took a job in a cop bar in downtown Washington, pouring booze and gathering material for his first novel, A Firing Offense, in which Nick Stefanos investigates the disappearance of a teenage co-worker into D.C.'s underground music scene. "It was supposed to be a punk rock detective novel," he recalls. "The whole edict that you should just pick up a guitar and try it got me stoked to try and write a book."
Pelecanos rewrote the book in longhand a few times before sending it blind to St. Martin's. "I was naÃ¯ve," he recalls. "I believed what it says in Writer's Market -- no simultaneous submissions." A year and a half later, editor Gordon Van Gelder picked it out of the slush pile and offered him a $2,500 advance. In the meantime, he'd started a second novel and taken a job at Circle. "I gave myself a limit," he says. "I said, I'm going to write one more book and see if I have it, but if I don't, I'm not going to drag everyone else down into the mud." St. Martin's paid $3,500 for Nick's Trip (1993), a complex story of marital double cross and mob intrigue that begins with Stefanos taking a job at the Spot. In 1994 came Sh dog, named for a womanizing sh salesman who gets caught up in a liquor store heist, followed the next year by another Stefanos caper, Down by the River Where the Dead Men Go.
Pelecanos calls that book the darkest he's ever written. "I had just gone on a trip to Brazil, where I saw kids literally starving in the street, just laying down and dying," he recalls. "When you see that, it just rocks your world. Down there I was also reading in the American newspapers about Gingrich coming up, talking about ending welfare. People just don't realize what that invisible wall does. Since then all my books have been about class differences and inequalities."
With The Big Blowdown, published in 1996, Pelecanos turned the clock back to the '30s and '40s to examine the Greek immigrant world of Pete Karras and "Big Nick" Stefanos, young Nick's papou and a restaurant owner who tangles with the mob. Curiosity about what Karras's son Dmitri might be like (answer: a lapsed grad student turned small-time dope dealer) led to King Suckerman. "I was 19 during the Bicentennial. I was out there, man. That was my time," Pelecanos recalls. "I had dropped out of school for the year to run my dad's coffee shop after he had a heart attack. When he came back, I took off to go driving around the country for a few months with my best friend" -- just like Stefanos does after the climactic gun battle between two motley multiracial crews against the backdrop of fireworks on the Mall.
King Suckerman also marked something of a leap to a bigger stage for Pelecanos. Agent Sloan Harris of ICM, who began representing him with Sh dog, sold the novel to Michael Pietsch at Little, Brown for an advance inching toward the high five figures for a two-book deal. But even with the glamorous movie deal, Pelecanos is cautious about any financial jackpot. "If I'm still around, it's because I haven't been overpublished. With the foreign sales" -- his books do particularly well in France, England and Japan, where The Big Blowdown recently won the Maltese Falcon Society award for best crime novel -- "they're not losing money on me."
After Suckerman, The Sweet Forever (1998) jumped ahead to 1986 to chronicle the collapse of home rule in D.C. under the weight of corruption and the arrival of crack in the city. Now, with Shame the Devil, Pelecanos jumps ahead again to wrap up the long, intertwined history of Nick Stefanos and Dmitri Karras, eventually bringing them back to Haynes Point, down by the Washington Channel, where The Big Blowdown began 60 years ago.
Shame the Devil has its share of gunplay and offbeat interracial buddy relationships (including a memorable turn by a soft-hearted, lump-headed Polish veteran of the defunct American Basketball Association, another Pelecanos obsession) and the usual sharp evocation of the boozy makeshift family vibe at the Spot. But the new book, which features a support group for survivors of the pizza parlor murders and Stefanos's attempt to get back on the wagon, is perhaps the most introspective thing he's done. "There's a lot of investigation into the spiritual side of all this, the cost of the violence these guys have been doing -- things that aren't usually looked at in genre books. In a way, I'm sort of questioning the whole genre and what I've done before. I like it, but it may leave some readers out."
In the meantime, this recovering genre novelist has just sold a new book to Little, Brown. All he'll say is that it's "about racism" -- a subject his books have acknowledged, but not quite explored -- and features a whole new cast of characters. Isn't he going to miss his old Greek buddies?
"I'm always thinking about them," he says. "To me they're real. But as someone I'm close to on the business side said to me recently, 'You've got to get out of that bar sometime. Just as a writer, you've got to get out of the bar.' "
Schuessler is on the staff of the New York Review of Books.