Monday, March 14, 2005

Book #8: The Sweet Forever by George Pelecanos

Book Cover

Although I've heard superlative things about Pelecanos before and consider myself a fanatical devotee of The Wire, which he produced starting in the second season, this is the first Pelecanos book I've read. The connection to The Wire is palpable: the novel deals with a few days during March Madness in 1986 and is centered around record store employees in a less-than-fashionable area of Washington D.C., a drug dealer who has lost $25,000 in a car accident, two dirty cops, and the suburban blue-collar couple who swiped the cash. Those descriptions don't even begin to capture the characters, who are given layers of real detail by Pelecanos, nor the tight plotting leading up to the impossibly tense climax. My main criticism is that some of the minor characters are a bit flat - but that doesn't really diminish the novel itself.

The best thing about the book is the eye for detail. The record store employees are music devotees, and the period-specific music they love rings true to this former record store manager. The pace is marked by the progression of March Madness, and all of the characters are astonished by Len Bias, which gives the rush of time a sense of desperation for all readers who remember what is going to happen to Bias within a few months of the time in which the book is set. Pelecanos is fantastic at not giving too much away, too, leaving the reader to suss out the context and progression in certain points from the ample breadcrumb trail of details. I like reading books that don't condescend to me. Don't you?

However, this book feels a bit dry next to the riches of The Wire. I finished Season Three on Saturday night (thanks, Dana! You rock!) and was completely blown away. Every little detail, many seemingly throwaway lines or scenes from earlier shows, came to a stunning climax over the final two episodes. The writers got a bit meta towards the end, which bugged me a bit, as producer/writer/creator/former cop Ed Burns was called out as one of the best cops in the Baltimore department by McNulty and another character could be seen reading one of Dennis LeHane's books. Still, I can't even think of another show in which the careful watcher is rewarded in so many emotionally rich ways. The Office comes close. I don't know that this show needs another season, but I would have said the same at the end of the second season, not realizing how much more there was to this story.

Anyway, for those of you who haven't seen the show (that's everyone, right?), The Wire is fundamentally about how institutions trap and diminish individuals, all within the context of a cop show. Boring, right? Hell, no, not when the individuals are written this enticingly. First, no one is exactly how they seem at first take, but they're not exactly different, either. They're complex in way that rarely makes it into tv or films. Sure, you've seen the Sopranos. You know that people contain multitudes. Do you need to hear it again? Again, The Wire allows its characters such depth and reality, as well as the artifice required for us to get to know them (such as the ability to make short speeches, the lonely moments when no one is watching, the way that so many complex emotions can pass across the actors' faces), that you feel like the world is more than real: it's a microcosm of life beyond the masks people wear at work or when dealing with bureaucracies or even in certain situations at home. It gives you the whole picture, where the cops aren't great people, the crooks aren't evil, and both have much more in common than you'd think. In fact, Season Two's Frank Sobotka is one of the greatest tragic heroes (or is that anti-heroes?) ever put to film. And nothing compares to the scene towards the end of Season Three where Stringer Bell and Avon Barksdale, each of which has betrayed the other, his best friend and partner, that same day and neither of which is aware that he has been betrayed as well, meet to talk about old times and to try to make themselves feel better about where they've been. Both have dismissed the betrayal at the time as "just business," but when Stringer says those words at their meeting, Avon looks like he's just been gut-punched. The next day, one will be dead and the other headed to jail. That's what poignancy looks like, mofos.

If The Wire gets another season, the next institution it takes on will reportedly be public education. Given that it's pulled such sweet science out of the institutions of the Drug War, labor unions, and local government, I have no doubt that The Wire could make hearts bleed over public education. It's one of the best shows tv has ever given us. It deserves the chance.

On another note, read this great post by Adam Lipscomb about feminism and the modern woman.


Adam 7:09 PM, March 14, 2005  

I haven't had much interest in The Wire, until reading your post. Damn. How'd I miss this show?

Hayden Childs 9:22 AM, March 15, 2005  

Well, you and just about everyone else. It's ratings are low 'cause no one is watching it, which might be because the show is so complex that you pretty much have to start at the beginning. There's no way to just pick it up in the middle.

Alyssa 9:25 PM, March 19, 2005  

But The Wire is back - did you hear? I read about it in the Baltimore Sun.

Hayden Childs 11:56 AM, March 21, 2005  

Did I hear? I even posted about it on Thursday!

LibraryLadyNJ 12:40 PM, April 02, 2005  

Help! Does anyone have the first 7-8 episodes of The Wire Season Three? I desperately need thme. You really do need to watch in order and I am missing these. I'll pay postage, tape costs,even a little extra if necessary. Please let me know!!!!!

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