Friday, December 4, 2009
The Way Home by George Pelecanos
George Pelecanos writes stark sentences. I like to read them. I also enjoy the fast-pace of his books, the political themes (race/class/ethnicity in contemporary American society), the fact they take place in Washington DC and his skillful, suspenseful storytelling. He is a good writer and his books are compelling. But his work is deeply flawed and limited by prejudice.
Like many of my favorite writers who utilize this style (Ernest Hemingway, Dashiell Hammet, John Fante) his stories are sexist to the point of distraction. There are few female characters. Predictably, when they do show up, they function as symbols and only exist in relation to men, who dominate the story and propel the action. His depictions of women usually involve describing their body from the point of view of one of the male characters, particularly the ass, and rarely do any female characters appear who are not mothers, whores or wives. Also like Hemingway, Hammet and Fante--his work is about masculinity--but not just any variety. He writes about a particular kind of patriarchal, straight-guy world that only seems to exist in movies and books; a world in which women are cliches and guys are heroic.
I wonder if, like me, he was drawn to his chosen writing style because he hates flowery, descriptive prose--or if he was drawn to it because he hates women (despite his love of the ass). I read 4 or 5 other Pelecanos books before I got to this one, all within a couple months of each other but The Way Home put me over my threshold. I actually don't think this one is more sexist than the others, maybe it's just not as good. Whatever the reason, I was over it. Because really, why be this sexist? Is it ignorance, stubborness, pure-hate, fear? I don't get it. On one level I liked the book, but can I recommend it? No, not truthfully, because while you might think that you can block it out and it's just harmless--it's not cool and we shouldn't have to put up with it. If you think you're up for reading a sexist dude's account of a father-son story that deals with the criminal-justice system, then go for it, but don't say I didn't warn you when you have to tolerate a bunch of ridiculous, annoying, tedious, predictable crap about women. I don't think that his sexism is incidental, I view it as central to his work, and to this writing style in general, unfortunately.
After finishing this one I was unable to get through the last book in the Derek Strange series (though I still plan on it) until I had researched and read some "feminist noir". I hope I can find writing I like as much written by a woman (or even an anti-sexist guy). I like crime fiction as a working class genre. It deals with working people, the underclass, justice/injustice and is largely a critique of society. There's usually a dichotomy between the amoral 'crook' and the pious world of the square. The worker is commonly depicted as a man (or woman) of the law, but often is corrupt or struggling with his/her own moral code and dilemma. Economics is generally a major theme. I've always loved mysteries and suspense, particularly detective novels. I like trying to solve the crime and keeping track of the different plot-lines and possible motives. Usually the characters are sharp and well-formed like they are in a comic strip. Quick-witted dialogue, the shadowy underworld, tragic twists of fate--all good and present here. I enjoy reading Pelecanos for these reasons. He is good at the craft and I appreciate his polemic use of fiction. But by the end of The Way Home, I'd had enough for awhile.