How America watches television has changed dramatically in the past decade and a half, due in part to streaming accessibility and in part to the reality that TV drama has simply become so darn good. Obviously, these facts are related.
Another factor: writers like George Pelecanos. Pelecanos has written for and produced such stellar and groundbreaking shows as “The Wire,” “Treme” and “The Deuce.” But before that he was known for smart, literate crime fiction: stories often set around Washington about cops (and ex-cops) and robbers and drifters. Some of the novels had continuing characters, and some stood alone. Before reading his new novel, “The Man Who Came Uptown,” I had read four and enjoyed each one immensely.
Among Pelecanos’s gifts as a storyteller is that he understands the appeal of moral ambiguity and authentically flawed characters. That skill is on full display here. So is his sense of humor. Take, for instance, the very first paragraph of the novel:
“When Antonius thought of all the things they’d done wrong the day of the robbery, wearing hoodies might have been at the top of the list. Considering that it was ninety degrees out, four men in heavy, dark sweatshirts were bound to attract attention . . . Course, if Antonius and his boys hadn’t smoked all that tree before the job, they might have thought the sweatshirts through. The sweatshirts, and the vanity plates on the getaway car.”
At the center of the novel is Phil Ornazian, a middle-aged, D.C.-based private investigator. Like me, Phil is an Armenian American, and his heritage is part of the fabric of the story. He has a lovely wife, two kids and a taste for vigilante justice. With his friend and partner, ex-cop Thaddeus Ward , now a bail bondsman who has named his business Ward Bonds after the “Wagon Train” actor Ward Bond, Ornazian takes on pimps who treat their prostitutes badly, guys who traffic young girls and neo-Nazi thugs who descend upon suburban parties. Imagine the Dark Knight, except Ornazian and Bond use more prosaic tools: a Remington 870 and a Glock 17. Also, they make serious money stealing from these criminals.
Ornazian knows this is not how justice is supposed to work, and “somewhere along the line, [his] ethics had blurred.” It seems likely that one day he is going to take one risk too many.
For some of their jobs, Ornazian and Ward need a driver, a guy who can manage a getaway car. And for this, Ornazian recruits young Michael Hudson, the titular man who came uptown. The expression, “going uptown,” means getting out of jail. Hudson is incarcerated, awaiting trial, when, much to his surprise, the marijuana dealer he robbed will no longer testify. And so he is released with no felony conviction. Why won’t the dealer testify? Because Ornazian has threatened him, “banking a favor.” Now Ornazian is calling it in, insisting Hudson join him in his illegal, after-hours operations with Ward.
But Hudson has a decent job as a dishwasher, and he wants to move up in the restaurant and be the young man of promise he had once been: “He had to be like one of those racehorses with blinders on. Keep looking straight ahead, no distractions.” When initially he refuses Ornazian, the investigator informs him that just as he convinced that dealer not to testify, he could get him to change his mind. Hudson does not want to help Ornazian, but he does not see a way out.
Moreover, Hudson discovered something remarkable in prison: books and the pure joy of reading. The prison’s mobile librarian, Anna — Miss Anna, to many of the inmates — is a young woman who takes pride in the way she can link a prisoner with exactly the right title. Soon, Hudson is reading John Steinbeck, Tim O’Brien and Dinaw Mengestu. “When he read a book, he wasn’t in his cage anymore,” Hudson realizes at one point. “When he read a book, the door to his cell was open.” Among the first things he buys on the outside is a bookcase.
Which brings me back to my first thoughts about Pelecanos. Yes, he is a gifted screenwriter who draws my wife and me away from the printed word to our television, but he also loves the novel. In many ways, “The Man Who Came Uptown” is a book about books. Anna and Hudson’s friendship continues when he is free, and it is a relationship founded upon the novels she recommends.
So while much of this story is classic crime noir — Will Ornazian go too far? Will Hudson wind up busted and back behind bars? — I found myself also reading the book for the Proustian madeleines that Pelecanos serves us: the names of the novels so many of us loved over the years and what those tales mean to the man who came uptown.
Chris Bohjalian is the author of 20 novels, including, most recently, “The Flight Attendant.”
THE MAN WHO CAME UPTOWN
By George Pelecanos
Mulholland. 263 pp. $27