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.


CrimeNerd said...

How is it sexist if he's writing a 3rd person limited omniscient novel? He could have made it third-person straight-up omniscient and then - as the all-seeing god narrator - interrupted the flow of the story and said directly to the reader in some lame-ass meta-bullshit passage, "Isn't it just horrible how these characters treat their women!" Instead, Mr Pelecanos is honest and unflinching, as he always is. This is about being true to his characters. Did you ever once doubt the actions or thoughts of these particular characters? I know I didn't, and that's because these characters behaved how you would imagine them to: without any revisionism or moralizing. That's the way the truly great and daring fiction writers go about creating art: by letting the reader decide for themselves what is right and wrong, what is appropriate and inappropriate. If you don't like to be challenged, to be forced - just by following a character in a story - to identify with someone while being disturbed by their many flaws as well , stay away from good books - good art in general - altogether.

Tobi Vail said...

Are you saying that writers using the 3rd person are not responsible for the ethics of their work?
I think there is a difference between depicting reality--which is patriarchal--and producing a sexist text, though you are right, this is tricky.
I just got sick of it. And, no, I don't think his books are particularly realistic or believable. If that is what he is going for I think he's missing the mark.
His stories seem like fables to me, the characters are updated 40's comic book--codified, typecast.
This is a thematic over the course of many books, it's not just this book, it is the choices that Pelecanos makes, time and time again and what he leaves out--which is any kind of respectful, sustained representation of women.

CrimeNerd said...

But his books are indeed ABOUT men. If these characters - working class if not outright poor - started waxing poetic about the strength of their wives, girlfriends or mothers, I personally would find it suspect within the world Pelecanos has created. If the book actually contained more women and all of them were paper-thin or stereotypical, then I might have a problem. But seeing how this is almost entirely from the perspective of men (I think there was a real estate agent or somebody who we got a brief chapter with), I was not bothered by the sexual descriptions, etc. I do think that Pelecanos' books have, if not realism, a sense of authenticity about them, and I never question the voice, though occasionally the plotting (though even that is usually more organic than most). If you want your crime fiction delivered from a strong female perspective, try Vicki Hendricks, Megan Abbott, Theresa Schwegel, or Christa Faust. But as they are artists as well, they certainly are true to their characters as well - no wart will go uninspected.

Tobi Vail said...

Right, but that is not realistic. Men do not exist in a world without women, ever. No man does! Why should we accept such a bizarre, mythical world as "real"-- it's a familiar Hollywood, TV-baby, fake version of the world that passes as "real" because we are used to this kind of storytelling.
I actually like Pelecanos a lot (and Hammet, Hemingway, Fante, Chandler etc), but chose to focus on what I don't like here because I didn't see anyone else addressing this aspect of his work. I had the same problem with The Wire, which is overwise totally brilliant and mind-blowing. I will review the other five books I have read here briefly.
Thanks for the book recommendations.

Tobi Vail said...

I also would dispute that it would be unbelievable to show working class/poor men respectful of women--both sides of my family prove this to be very believable, as does my experience growing up around strong working class women and girls who commanded respect from all of their peers, male or female.