Drama City: A Novel
|Author:||George P. Pelecanos|
Lorenzo Brown just wants to stay straight. After eight years in prison on a drug charge, he’s come “uptown”—back to the Washington, DC neighborhood where he grew up, where his old cohorts still work their corners and their angles, trying to get ahead and stay alive. But Lorenzo’s had enough of the life: now he has a job as a Humane Society officer, policing animal abusers and protecting the abused. In the dangerous streets he used to menace, Lorenzo plays a part in maintaining order—and it’s a role reversal some of his former friends don’t appreciate. Rachel Lopez, Lorenzo’s parole officer, tries to help him, even as she battles her own demons and excesses. Trying to stay one step ahead of her troubled past is a daily struggle. It looks like they both might make it, until a malevolent young killer, working for the powerful local drug boss, changes everything with one violent act. Now Lorenzo finds himself caught between the light and dark sides of the street, struggling to stay legit—or throw everything away to exact revenge.
The real test of an author’s skill is sometimes to be found not in an unusually conceived work, but in his or her ability to create a consuming tale out of what, in outline form, might sound like an all-too-familiar or mundane plot line. In another novelist’s hands, for instance, Drama City might have been a perfectly serviceable but regrettably unmemorable story of redemption and revenge set in the grittier districts of Washington, D.C. But with George Pelecanos at the reins, it becomes a poignant, profound yarn about men—the good, the bad, and the still undecided—trying to find their footing amid the centrifugal forces at play in a modern inner city.
Pelecanos’s first standalone after four consecutive novels starring private eye Derek Strange (including Soul Circus and Hard Revolution), Drama City introduces Lorenzo Brown, a young, black onetime criminal enforcer who’s recently returned to the streets after doing eight years in prison on a felony drug charge. Crime and criminals had always been fundamental to Lorenzo’s existence. (“Y’all know how that is. I ran with some boys, one in particular, and when those boys and my main boy went down to the corner I went with ‘em. They were my people, the closest thing I ever had to male kin.”) Since his release, though, he’s been serving as a Humane Law Enforcement Officer with the Humane Society, protecting animals from the panoply of domestic cruelty, trying to leave both the drugs and the thugs behind. This attitude has won him a few champions, notably Rachel Lopez, his striking half-Jewish, half-Latina probation officer and friend, who spends her days “telling other people that they need to stay on track,” but then goes off the rails at night, haunting hotel bars, picking up inappropriate guys, always frightened by the idea of a relationship “where she was not in complete control.” Of course, these delicate balances of individual behavior are only possible in the absence of the unexpected. When a seemingly inconsequential mistake incites a lethal turf battle between rival gang bosses Nigel Johnson and Deacon Taylor, and Rachel is stabbed in the chest by a volatile, hopped-up gunman, Lorenzo finds his killer instincts returning to the fore. He must decide how far he’s willing to go—and how much he’s willing to lose—in order to exact retribution.
A simple plot on its face, yet given high stakes and a heroic edge by Pelecanos’s portrayal of Brown as a man-in-progress struggling to secure his liberty from the past, helped along by his unexpectedly sympathetic former boss, childhood friend Nigel Johnson. Less satisfyingly rendered is Lopez, whose acrobatic swings to the wild side provide merely arousing diversions, without adequate character development. Bearing soul as well as teeth, Drama City gives off the air of a Greek tragedy. You know things are going to get bad before they turn worse, but Pelecanos keeps you riveted throughout. —J. Kingston Pierce