When I first started reading George Pelecanos – the Nick Stefanos Mysteries – and later when we met and I had the opportunity to interview him, it was clear that his chosen form, the crime novel, was going to be, for him, much more than an entertainment – though his books are certainly that. As became even more evident with some of the later, more substantial titles – Right as Rain, say, Hard Revolution or The Night Gardener – Pelecanos sees himself very much in the role of social chronicler, as well as – sounds a little pretentious, but I can’t help it – a chronicler of the lives of men. Men and women inseparable from the society into which they are born and in which they live. Cause and effect.
Going back over Pelecanos’ work I’m reminded of a statement by the Australian writer, Peter Temple. ” … those are the issues [questions of morality, of behaviour and of simple human decency] you should write about (and) if you are a crime writer you have more licence to write about them than anybody else.”
From the time Pelecanos became involved, as writer and producer, in the television series, The Wire, and later, Treme and The Deuce, novels have been relatively few and far between. So news of The Man Who Came Uptown was greeted with pleasurable anticipation.
It is, in some respects, a simple morality tale. Will Michael, on release from prison, go back to the life that put him there, responding to the pressures of those around him, or have the courage and strength of will to step aside and make an honest life of his own? That he is even considering the latter is in no small part due to the prison librarian, who has successfully introduced him to books and reading and, through them, an alternative set of choices.
One book that affects Michael strongly is Northline by Willy Vlautin, which tells the story of a young woman who gradually finds the strength to have hope and trust in the possibility of a new life, despite years of serious abuse. A role model, for Michael, of sorts. If she can do it, if she can even try …
Pelecanos’ opinion of the novel is clear from the rear jacket of the Faber edition of the book …
Northline shines with naked honesty and unsentimental humanity. The character of Allison Johnson, and the wounded-but-still-walking people she encounters on her journey, will stay with me for a long while. Vlautin has written the American novel that I’ve been hoping to find.
Vlautin, author of five novels so far, is also a song writer and musician, initially with the band Richmond Fontaine and, more recently, The Delines, for whom he plays guitar and sings as well as writing most of their material. I was aware of Richmond Fontaine, liking some of their songs without going overboard [the exception being the marvellous Inventory from the 2011 album, The High Country] but The Delines are, as they say – or used to – something else. A friend – actually, my agent – the two are far from inseparable – gave me a copy of their 2014 album, Colfax, for a recent birthday and it’s scarcely been off the stereo since.
Not surprisingly, the songs are stories; moments, often, taken from the centre of broken down lives; their protagonists drawn from an itinerant American underclass . No surprise that amongst his favourite writers Vlautin cites John Steinbeck and Raymond Carver.
But what makes the songs on Colfax and the more recent The Imperial really work is the voice of singer Amy Boone, sometimes barely rising above the level of everyday speech, which conveys the experience and pain of the characters she inhabits with weary fidelity. Aware of this, when Boone had a serious accident after making Colfax, Vlautin waited several years until she had recovered and could sing again before making another record.