Racism didn't end with the election of Barack Obama, but it seems as if the social disapproval of open racism, one of the changes wrought in American life by the Civil Rights movement, did. When the New York Post prints a cartoon depicting Obama as a dead monkey, you have to go back nearly 50 years to find the unashamed equivalent in the mainstream American press.
This is why George Pelecanos, a white novelist whose characters only sometimes share their creator's race, seems a particularly valuable writer for our country to have at this moment. Pelecanos, whose new thriller is The Cut, is the type of writer American fiction and American life needs when many of us feel hopeless to prevent the political, cultural, and racial segregation that rules our national life right now.
Better than almost any current writer, Pelecanos has shown what city dwellers have known for years: that it is urban neighborhoods, and not suburbs, where what we think of as the small-town values of community and knowing your neighbors have taken root. The blacks and Latinos and Greeks and others who populate Pelecanos's DC neighborhoods are recognizable working-class and middle-class characters, trying to get on with their lives in places that newspapers and television news have been content to display as a jungle. When, in The Cut, two young black men are murdered, the protagonist notes that the story is buried on the inside pages of the Washington Post. He's clearly speaking for Pelecanos, whose writing has always been laced with palpable and finely controlled anger at the general willingness to throw away young black lives.
All of this makes it harder to report that The Cut is a disappointment. Not a bad book, just an indifferent one. The problem, I think, rests almost entirely with Pelecanos's protagonist, Spero Lucas. Spero is a veteran of the Iraq war, now home in DC and working as a defense lawyer's investigator. He's hired by a jailed marijuana kingpin to locate his stolen stash, and as good as Spero is at what he does, he's not good enough to control the consequences.
Pelecanos is using Spero to chart the dawning of consciousness in a callow young man. The trouble is, Spero is far too callow to invest in emotionally. He's not a jerk or a bully. He treats the girls he hooks up with like a gentleman. And yet what they finally come to sense is missing in him — an active emotional life — is all too clear from the start. Far too late in the book, Spero reflects that he had no trouble working for the pot dealer because, as an occasional partaker, he doesn't believe it should be illegal. But Spero isn't stupid, and we don't believe he couldn't foresee trouble in accepting this job.
Pelecanos's characters — the levelheaded ones and the hotheaded ones — have always carried the marks of their experience with them. Characters like Derek Strange or Terry Quinn in the series featuring their partnership, or Lorenzo Brown in Drama City, felt like adults even when they acted foolishly. You don't get the sense that Spero is holding in the experience of war — he doesn't feel contained, just thickheaded, like the kind of fit, competent, unimaginative, and basically uninteresting young men you can meet in professions from finance to law enforcement. Given some time, Spero might make a compelling presence. Now, he's an entrée served without seasoning.
The Cut | By George Pelecanos | Little, Brown and Company | 304 pages | $25.99