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Hard Evolution

  Hard Revolution
George Pelecanos
Little, Brown, 2004
Rating: 4.0

Posted: April 19, 2004

By Kevin Forest Moreau

When writers trace the arc of a character's emotional growth against the backdrop of a defining, historical moment or era, they run the risk of allowing the setting to overpower the story they're trying to tell. Sometimes the moment is just too big, and the characters are reduced to ciphers, plot points, as in the television miniseries The '60s and its current prime-time analog, American Dreams. Sometimes the personal story just isn't compelling, no matter what backdrop is used (Michael Bay's Pearl Harbor, anyone?).

When you get right down to it, no matter what historical crucible a character's lived through, be it the Vietnam War or the Protestant Reformation, no character can be defined solely by the events that swirl around him. In real life, after all, momentous events are often shaped by an indelible personality, as much as the other way around.

All of which is to note the potentially perilous task that noted crime novelist George Pelecanos sets for himself with Hard Revolution, a prequel of sorts to his series of novels about African-American private detective Derek Strange. Revolution unfolds in the days prior to and immediately following the 1968 assassination of the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. in Memphis. And as the young Strange, a Washington, D.C. police patrolman, grapples with the death of a loved one, Pelecanos also plops him right in the middle of the riots that swept the nation's capital in the aftermath of King's death. The unspoken understanding, of course, is that the confluence of these two events will shed some light on the evolution of Strange's character to the more seasoned and weary man of the present-day novels.

Well, yes and no. The Derek Strange of Hard Revolution is certainly a different man from the Strange of Hell to Pay and Soul Circus, although not unrecognizably so. That's not the issue: What keeps Revolution from fully convincing us of Strange's transformation is Pelecanos' over-reliance on the gravity of the riots to shock us in the same way that Strange gets jarred. We see him move through the events, and we see him make a claim to changed-man status afterward, but we're never sold on exactly what emotions move Strange from Point A to Point B. Pelecanos is a meticulous researcher, to be sure, and he puts the reader smack in the middle of a couple of harrowing situations. But his documentarian's eye for historical details, while certainly impressive, sets us at a remove from full emotional participation. The same is true of the subplot involving Derek's revenge on the person who kills someone close to him. We see Strange walk through his grief, we see his anger and his resolve, but we don't feel it.

It's fair to say that part of this emotional remove is a function of the many characters and situations Pelecanos juggles. The reader's perspective skips from Derek to his unfulfilled, disappointing would-be revolutionary brother Dennis, to their parents (stoic diner cook Darius Strange and proper domestic maid Alethea), to last-of-a-dying-breed cop Frank Vaughn, Dennis's ne'er-do-well acquaintance Alvin Jones and a couple of white roughneck wannabe bank robbers, and a couple of other characters besides. (Readers of past Strange novels also get a pat explanation of Strange's complex connection to Granville Oliver, as outlined in Soul Circus.) Such a broad canvas necessarily dilutes some of the emotional impact of Derek's inevitable coming-of-age moment.

But the development and convergence of the different characters also, conversely, helps to flesh out the proceedings -- particularly the subplot involving the bank robbers, and Strange's and Vaughn's roles in said thread. As a result, Derek's experience of the riots and his personal drama involving the killer are grounded in the vividly realized, real-world tableau of working-class D.C. We may have to ultimately take Derek's moment of truth on faith, overshadowed as it is by the multitude of characters and events swirling around it. But those same characters and events also immeasurably broaden and enrich the tapestry against which Derek moves. As a result, we don't completely buy into the decision he makes at the end of Hard Revolution, but we nonetheless feel we know him better than we did before.

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 Ratings Key:
 5.0: A masterwork
 4.0-4.9: Great read
 3.0-3.9: Well done
 2.0-2.9: Ordinary
 1.1-1.9: Sub par
 0.0-1.0: Horrendous

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