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Small-Scale Drama

  Drama City
George Pelecanos
Little, Brown, 2005
Rating: 4.1

Posted: March 20, 2005

By Kevin Forest Moreau

The crime writer George Pelecanos has, over the years, gradually refined a seeming effortlessness reminiscent of the best works of Elmore Leonard. This effect has noticeably matured over the course of his last several books, those involving the private detective Derek Strange. The reader watches the pieces of the plot click into place, but they all rise organically, as the natural outcomes of the author's characters and situations. In Drama City, that effortlessness is almost perfect. We watch events unfold, but we never feel led or spoon-fed, as if everything is pre-ordained (even though it is).

Lorenzo Brown is an ex-convict living and working in the same Washington, D.C. neighborhood he's lived all his life (save for eight years spent in prison). He's got a decent job with the Humane Society, looking out for abused and neglected animals, and he keeps his nose to the grindstone, hoping to stay straight even as he walks the same streets as the pushers and thugs he once called family. Lorenzo doesn't exactly miss his old life, but he nonetheless acknowledges that it is a part of him; the instincts, however buried, are still there. Rachel Lopez, his likeable parole officer, isn't worried about Lorenzo; she's convinced he'll make it just fine. She's got problems of her own to contend with, notably a penchant for alcohol abuse and anonymous sex that is slowly, surely taking its toll.

Lorenzo's determination to stay out of his old world is tested, of course, as the result of a misunderstanding involving turf between the soldiers of two different neighborhood drug chiefs -- one of them, Nigel Johnson, Lorenzo's old friend and partner-in-crime. Although Johnson's boys are in the wrong, one of them, DeEric Green, is less than apologetic during a confrontation with a fundamentally weak gangster named Rico Miller. But if Miller doesn't have the courage to assert himself, his companion, Melvin Lee, a quiet, steely teenager too eager to immerse himself in the violence of the drug world, does. In retaliation for the dis against Miller, whom he considers his father, Lee kills Green and his companion, spurring a meeting between Johnson and his opposite number, the cold, calculating Deacon Taylor. When Lopez's path crosses with Lee's, Lorenzo finds himself slipping back into those instincts, all too willing to risk everything he's worked for.

Drama City is compelling precisely because Pelecanos doesn't feel the need to compel us, to manipulate us like a slick thriller writer. He doesn't amp up the pathos, blowing this fairly standard plot into high Shakespearian tragedy; this isn't The Godfather, after all -- just one relatively unimportant man's struggle to keep his feet on the right path. Pelecanos sketches this struggle in subtle strokes, carefully filling in the details at which he's become so adept: relatable characters (especially in the Alcoholics Anonymous meetings Lorenzo and Rachel frequently attend), authentic dialogue and an ability to vividly depict the inner workings of life on the fringes.

Pelecanos doesn't hold up these lives as either particularly heroic or grotesquely villainous. Instead, he outlines the inevitable costs and consequences of such lives without moralizing, fluidly outlining the way a single act causes repercussions that affect people far outside of it. Drama City underlines the countless small-scale dramas, like Lorenzo's, that unfold on the edges of society every day; his is just one of eight million stories in the naked city.

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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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