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Too cool to cut deep
on 18 July 2010
I'd had The Sweet Forever on my shelf for a while waiting to be read. Since then I've watched and loved every episode of the almost life changing The Wire, which Pelecanos wrote several episodes of.
In comparison to that show's immaculate naturalism and thrilling moral ambiguity, this feels more like an entertaining genre piece, it's first intention to keep you hooked with tense set pieces and hip dialogue. Characters largely divide into identifiably 'good' or 'bad' but are well written, with the details ringing clarion true; bigoted cop Tutt's certainty an apocalyptic race war is coming, housewife Wanda's rigid adherence to her schedule of soaps and sitcoms as the rest of life falls apart around her.
Even the smallest characters are vivdly sketched, but the beating heart of the story are Reel Right Records owner and employee Clay and Karras, the former a hardnosed, hardworking Vietnam Vet, the latter an elegantly wasted, ageing partier, whose friendship always, crucially, feels plausible. The quite different relationship of the two men to the drug trade is a clever, well executed device.
Pelecanos acutely captures the sights, sounds, smells and tastes of DC, and the period feel works well. Like Jonathan Lethem, Pelecanos wears his musical taste on his sleeve, and readers who relished The Fortress of Solitude's deep dish of punk and soul references should dig what's here.
The book does try to bring home the cycle of violence and despair on the streets in poor, forgotten parts of the US, but Pelecanos offers a slightly offputting encouragement for his characters to man up in times of crisis, solving their problems with a decisive act of violence or intimidation. It's surely far off the answer to the social ills documented.