Monday, April 29, 2013

Drinking & Detecting


George Pelecanos created the character of Nick Stefanos at the beginning of a writing career that includes multiple crime novels as well as work on TV’s The Wire and Treme. In a A Firing Offense, Nick’s Trip and Down By The River Where the Dead Men Go we learned that  Nick was born in Greece but shipped to the US as a baby and raised by his grandfather in Washington DC.  He spent his teens and twenties working for a retail electronics store and eventually became their advertising director but a busted marriage and job dissatisfaction led to him quitting to become a private investigator with a knack for finding himself in violent situations.  However, Nick ends up spending most of his time working at a dive bar which enables his increasing alcoholism.

Shelf Inflicted staffers Anthony, Kemper and Dan recently read the trilogy and cracked open a bottle of Old Grand-Dad as they discussed Nick Stefanos.  General spoiler about Nick's adventures in drinking and detecting follow:



Anthony:
I think there is a lot to be said about Nick's attitude through the kind of music he listens to. Nick has a soft spot in his heart for the DC Hardcore scene So when he was in his twenties, bands like Minor Threat were thriving in their own way. But the scene didn't last long before it became something ugly that gained a connotation of hate and violence, which is different than what the DC DIY ethos was supposed to be. The music was loud and abrasive but the songs were actually optimistic and carried the message of young people rejecting the roles that society wants to force them into.

So flash forward ten years and Nick is in his thirties and clinging to that music and what its ethos has mutated into for him. His drinking and general lack of maturing is Nick latching onto what he sees as the best part of his life: the past.

Dan:
I think Pelecanos uses music to help establish the setting and also as a way for Nick to cling to the past.

I also think that part of why Nick takes on cases is to avoid dealing with his own issues and continue his downward slide.

Kemper:
The past seems to be the key element there because despite Nick’s love of music, he makes little mention of the grunge movement of the early ‘90s and dismisses a band like the Smashing Pumpkin in a conversation in which a younger man essentially tells Nick that he had his time and now it‘s someone else‘s turn.

Anthony:
Grunge music? Not so positive in its message or attitude. Neither is the DC Nick lives in within these books. Nick doesn't listen to grunge, because, one, he is growing out of touch with newer music meant for younger people; and, two, it goes against his need to misplace feelings on music. Even so, Nick's alcoholic spiral reflects the attitude of early 90s grunge rock and industrial rock. The 80s are finally over, and we're all going down with it.

Kemper:
There’s no doubt that Nick also has a lot of nostalgia for his younger days and seems to ascribe special meaning to minor events as well as thinking that he's found a home in the dive bar he works in even though he has nothing in common with the regulars in the place.

Is Nick just a sentimental guy with a booze problem who became a detective because it allows him to drink on his schedule and avoid growing up?

Dan:
Nick's boozing is what prevents him from growing up. He spends so much time in a drunken haze that it's hard to form lasting relationships with anyone besides his drinking buddies. I think the bar gig is a way to continue prolonging his extended childhood.

Kemper:
A Firing Offense made it seem as if Nick was a guy making a change in his life because he wasn't satisfied, but Nick's Trip had me thinking that him becoming a private detective was the equivalent of a kid running off to join the circus or become a cowboy so I think you're onto something with the extended childhood.

He certainly never put much effort into making the detective thing work, yet he still sometimes feels the need to dive headfirst into dangerous situations.

Dan:
I wonder if Nick's failure to move forward has to do with never knowing his parents and that his role model was a single man, his papou, Big Nick.

Kemper:
Nick's issues of abandonment with him being sent to the US by parents he never met while raised by the only family he had with his late grandfather probably accounts for his reluctance to change.

With no foundation of family, Nick has mentally adopted a wild range of people who have crossed his path, even if they don't know it. It's another telling point that he seems to sink down another level after seeing the son he fathered at the request of his lesbian friend go across the country. Just as he was sent off to be raised by someone else, Nick has let his child be taken and raised by others.

Anthony:
That's a good point about the connection between Nick's parents and his own child. These seem central to some of the biggest complexes within Nick's character. For one, a lot of his actions in these three books reflects this idea he seems to have that he is not good enough to have normal loving relationships with anyone. Nick's alcoholism is an act of intentional self-destructive behavior, and I think his sense of continual abandonment in his life (his absent parents, his failed marriage, his grandfather who died) causes him to use alcohol as a way of making himself cease to exist.

But Nick has this idea that he has to be responsible for others, so it is why he can put aside his booze-drenched lifestyle to actually help people. Nick has a strong sense of responsibility to people he thinks of as being "abandoned". In fact, I think his involvement in the mysteries within all three of the novels hinges on this draw he has towards people he feels have been abandoned.

Kemper:
One of the more interesting aspects about Nick to me is that he does make himself responsible for people or takes guilt that he isn't owed so easily in a lot of ways, but still is generally irresponsible in his own life and shrugs off criticism or blame for things he's actually done.

I've been wondering if Nick cares at all about being a  detective or is his PI license an excuse for more self destruction by putting himself in dangerous situations?

He's shown some talent for the detective game, but he refuses most of the case work that would allow him to work at it full time. You could blame that on the booze, but even the patron saint of alcoholic PIs, Matt Scudder, was able to find enough work to stay busy during his drinking days while still being somewhat picky about what he'd work on.

Dan:
You might be right about that. He stays away from tailing people's significant others and things of that nature but gets snared into drug-related things pretty often.

Anthony:
I think Nick's reluctance to form any kind of real steady work habit may have to do with another of Pelecanos other themes in this series--or should I say criticism? In any case, Pelecanos has nothing kind to say about businesses and their practices. We see a lot of criminal activity at even low levels of the corporate spectrum. This can't be a coincidence considering the series takes place in D.C.


Kemper:
There is a definite theme in Nick's books that business man equals villain. In the later Pelecanos books I've read, he gets away from that a bit with more criminal low-life types taking the bad guy roles. This could be related to the early '90s time frame when a lot of crime stories were using white collar business men as the root of all evil.

Pelecanos has also trended towards writing a lot of hard-working small-business guys who he sets up as the ones to be admired, but these are guy who run diners or a carpet cleaning business, not the real estate types or retail kings that make up Nick's rogue's gallery.

Dan:
That's certainly the case by the time The Cut rolls around.

Since Nick (at least in the first book) is based on Pelecanos at that age, it makes me think Pelecanos grew up in a working class family and some of Nick comes from that.


Kemper:
Considering his success, it's hard to argue that Pelecanos should have done more with Nick, although he does appear as a minor character in other books, but we end with Nick in a much worse place than where we met him, and that makes his character arc pretty sad.

Should Pelecanos have carried on the series and eventually got Nick off the sauce or does the trilogy make a complete, but depressing story?

If I would have read these as published back in the '90s and someone would have told me that there wouldn't be another book with Nick as a main character, I probably would have felt somewhat cheated. However, coming to these books after reading most of Pelecanos other work, it does seem like he finished most of what he had to say here and was ready to move on to new characters and stories.


Anthony:
I read an interview where Pelecanos admitted that even though Nick was a fictionalized version of himself, their two lives took a distinctly different course. Pelecanos settled down with his wife, had a kid, and was altogether happy with his life. Nick, on the other hand, gets worse and worse with each book.

Even though it is a dark place Nick is left at the end of Down By the River where the Dead Men Go, I wonder if this was a way for Pelecanos to do off with the hedonistic tendencies of his own youth.

Dan:
While I would gladly read more Nick Stefanos books, there wasn't a lot more Pelecanos could do with Nick besides either kill him off or have him quit drinking.  Since part of what makes Nick so interesting is his drinking problem, I'm fairly satisfied where Pelecanos left him at the end of the series.

About the contributors:

Kemper started reading Pelecanos in the late ‘90s but somehow never had gotten around to reading the Nick Stefanos books until now.  He is deeply shamed about this.

After reading James Cumley's The Last Good Kiss and realizing that his calling in life was to become an alcoholic PI, Anthony started doing as much research as he could on the profession. His studies led him to the Nick Stefanos trilogy as well to an increase in his own already  substantial alcohol consumption. Anthony has also stolen Nick Stefanos music taste and is currently trying to pass it off as his own. 

Dan has never witnessed a murder during an epic drunk and hopes to keep it that way.

3 comments:

  1. Bravo! Very nicely done gentlemen.

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  2. Amen to what Trudi said. I am reading Nick's Trip as we speak.

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