Thursday, February 16, 2006

For outsiders looking in, the District is hardly considered a hotbed of hollow-eyed loners dogged by drink, debt and divorce — let alone, a lisp, a limp, Nam flashbacks, or any of the standard props the noir genre trades in. In fact, the closest Inside the Beltway Man comes to the gutter is a call to the Yellow Pages for the annual roof cleaning.

For a city that once led the league both in per capita homicides and per capita shootings by police, this is a tad unfair: After all, we’ve got hard-boiled mean streets aplenty, peopled with prostitutes, hustlers, panhandlers and pool sharks. We’ve got projects where crime festers and boils. We’ve got suburban yahoos coming in on weekends for a taste of the nasty. Scores are still settled with broken beer bottles. And, it’s safe to say, PCP and automatic weaponry, or off-duty Marines, frat boys and Latino gangsters, real or wannabe, don’t always mix very well.

In short, as the noir writer might say, “There’s material here.”

George Pelecanos, blessed with nods from Hollywood and the best-seller list for his detective fiction, has now come out with an anthology of stories that dips generously into the grit and gristle beyond the Mall. Entitled “D.C. Noir” (Akashic Books), it features 16 pieces, all authored by natives or near-natives, that rather convincingly shed sanitized, wonky whiteness in favor of Chocolate City cool. This is a good thing if your prefer your corner greasy spoon to Starbucks, and pool partners who’ve done a bit of jail time.

On the other hand, if you’re with the chamber of commerce or, unlikely as it may sound, go-go guru Chucky Brown, you might find the volume’s celebration of gangsta chic off-putting. (At the height of the crack wars in the late 1980s, Mr. Brown recorded an anti-violence single entitled “D.C. Don’t Stand for Dodge City.”)

The District has always had not one, but two, image problems: that of a squeaky clean theme park for earnest worker bees and civic-minded tourists (read west of the park, white); or a crime-riddled low-rise landscape of churches, liquor stores and drug corners (read east of the park, black). It’s a crude and not altogether accurate dichotomy, but one with which the city continues to wrestle.

Mr. Pelecanos et al. find their drama, for the most part, in the east. And who can blame them? The noir genre dramatizes and celebrates dysfunction. It peddles a certain formula. Who, after all, wants to read about the stable middle class and their lawn care headaches?

Quintin Peterson’s “Cold as Ice” goes against the grain a bit by featuring a bespectacled eyewitness to a murder who, hunted down by an unsavory sort, delivers a revenge-of-the-yuppie-nerd payback. But with that exception, the collection catalogs a familiar litany of heists gone wrong, oblivious and sickly parents, snitches hunted down, desperate acts of violence all carried along by the equally familiar props of drugs, guns and posse peer pressure. If there’s one dominant motif, it’s the magnetic pull of the street — in the ghetto, sadly enough, the one and only arena where a man can prove himself.

The deadbeat dads and swaggering Timberland lowlifes pathologically allergic to responsibility — all this, in the wrong hands, can easily turn trite and formulaic. But with its generous splatters of local color and lore, from Georgia Avenue church interiors to Ben’s Chili Bowl on U and Don Juan’s on Mount Pleasant Street, “Noir” does its best to debunk the myth of the District as a stopover for transient careerists. And it updates the city’s demographic mix beyond the black/white divide with nods to more recent arrivals: Nigerian merchants, Moldavian call girls, Latino day laborers and gangsters all make appearances.

Still, there are some missed opportunities. There’s a story to be told about downtown Jewish liquor-store owners, their uneasy truce with the black population, and their suburban flight after the 1968 riots. In Richard Currey’s piece, “The Names of the Lost,” the protagonist Liebman’s confrontation with — in this case — white, anti-Semitic hooligans has an earthy stoicism to it, but the Holocaust flashbacks feel gratuitous, under-researched and tacked on.

Equally, there’s a little more to west-of-the-park living than neurotic soccer moms in loveless marriages. Laura Lippman’s story, “ARM and the Woman,” asks the reader to believe that the main character would engage in loveless lesbian seduction (and worse) to deal with a custody battle, an ex-husband and a pesky adjustable rate mortgage. Sudden increases in mortgage payments can be a bummer, but good noir demands better development to flesh out its acts of desperation.

Finally, some awkward prose here could have benefited from more hands-on editing: There is too much use of the passive voice, a lack of crispness and concision and sentences such as the following (from “Cold as Ice”): “The dreadful scene was punctuated, and made that much more grotesque, by Aaliyah’s head exploding, bursting like a ripe melon dropped from a high place.” Taking a page from the show-don’t-tell writing primer, simply recording that “Aaliyah’s head exploded like a melon dropped from a high place” says enough about “dreadful” and “grotesque” to get the job done.

The patchy prose and hints of amateur hour warrant more than a quibble. However, Mr. Pelecanos, as a champion of the city’s grit, has nevertheless done something noble and necessary. In a city lacking much homegrown literary talent, he has assembled a compelling mix of ex-convicts, retired police officers, former crime beat reporters and a few writing pros willing to turn their storytelling eye, whether jaundiced or tender, inward toward the neighborhood. Chocolate City certainly gets its due. Local haunts and hangouts are lovingly drawn.

Ultimately, though, the crude dichotomy still needs some more blurring. A follow-up volume (or, better yet, an annual anthology) would have to take on the Ethiopian cabdriver and the Virginia horse country heiress, the bike courier and the Hill blogger, the Iranian World Banker and the club promoter, Cafe Milano and the Raven, the retired diplomat and … as the saying goes, there’s still more material there.

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