St. Martin's Press (1996)
Anthony Vacca's rating: 4 out of 5 stars
The sad truth about modernism? It failed.
What do I mean by that? Well, if you’ll allow me to sum up the goal of the movement in a very simplified manner, then modernism was about artists—in this particular case, authors—trying to create works that would let people know how horrible a thing World War I was and how no one must ever let a thing like that happen again.
Came to pass that things didn’t quite work out that way, and so most of these authors went headlong into various modes of self-destruct. That’s why authors like Woolf, Hemingway, and Faulkner (just to name a few) didn’t take too long in putting an end to their time here in a world seemingly perpetuated by misery.
But to be blunt, the real crime is not the loss of these great minds, these old men and women: the real bitch is that we sent so many more young men to die in places they never even knew existed.
Kids like Pete Karras and Joe Recevo. These two boys, best friends and natives of Washington DC, went to fight their separate wars overseas; and by the dumb chance, managed to come back home to resume their God-given rights of finding that American Dream.
In James Crumley’s Dancing Bear, the author writes, “I have learned some things. Modern life is warfare without end: take no prisoners, leave no wounded, eat the dead--that's environmentally sound.”
I bet Karras and Recevo would be hard-pressed to argue with that logic; because even though the two have returned as “heroes” neither are really prime candidates for good citizen material. So the two find work collecting for a local thug named Burke. But where Recevo seems content living off being a bully towards all the local businessmen, Karras isn’t cut out for the line of work. If anything, Karras is playing at being a gangster so he can avoid getting a real job with all those boring responsibilities that seem to go along with being an adult; and, of course, so he can keep hanging out with his best friend Recveo, driving cool cars, catching boxing matches, chasing women, you know, all the ways two buds have a little bit of fun in the late 1940’s.
That is until Karras finds out the hard way that being a gangster doesn’t really mean you can also be nice and carefree. And so, physically and emotionally humiliated, Karras finds himself working as cook at a local diner.
And here’s when the book gets good. The diner is owned by Nick Stefanos, a name any casual Pelecanos fan will recognize. But no, this isn’t the Nick who narrated that amazing trilogy of PI novels (A Firing Offense, Nick’s Trip, and Down By the River Where the Dead Men Go) but instead this is his grandfather, “Big Nick.” This is the man who would one day shape Nick into the deeply moral man will one day become. Even though little Nick isn’t here for the action of this book, we get to see first-hand what kind of man his grandfather was and why it is he revered the man.
In fact, these are my favorite parts of the book. Nick’s Bar and Grill is one of the first establishments in the city to make the change over to being a place ran by a white man that has an African-American clientele. In Washington DC of the 1940s, this is no small feat. Nick runs his restaurant with a casual pride that is hard not to admire. He treats every person he meets fairly, and in turn is liked by most people. And when Karras it at his lowest in life, it is Big Nick who gives him a job so he can feed his young wife and child, but also he is the one who helps Karras learn how to walk like a man again.
Karras knows that he owes this man a lot, so when that local thug Burke decides that Big Nick needs to start paying him protection money, there’s Karras ready to fight at his side. The only trouble is that in Burke’s corner is also Karras’s childhood friend Joe Recevo.The novel ultimately becomes a struggle of identity for these two men as they try and figure out the nature of themselves and what they are willing to fight for. But Pelecanos does not let his sights end there. The author sets out to create a panoramic of his beloved city by inserting various other plot threads that interweave with this tension between the gangsters and Big Nick’s crew.
Another childhood friend of Karras’s, Boyle, is a cop who wants to make it big by being the one to catch the maniac who has been cutting up prostitutes over the past couple of years.
There is also a country boy who has come to the city to find a sister that has gotten herself mixed up with heroin and a nasty pimp. The kid becomes quickly lost in the city lifestyle but soon finds a set of friends when he starts working at Big Nick’s for money to live off of while he hunts for his sister.
These threads are interesting but neither mystery offers unexpected revelations to the story. Neither feels tagged on, however. Instead, the hunt for the sister and the hunt for the serial killer help to further flesh out Karras and Recevo as well as push events to their ultimate bullet-ridden climax.
And while all the crime fiction elements of this novel are satisfying, the true joy comes from the character studies of Karras and Recevo. The war waged between the two becomes the war of self, as Karras must assess just what exactly is his life. And let’s not forget the atmosphere in this novel: Pelecanos brings the different sections of his city alive with a fistful of sights, smells, and, of course, sounds, via dozens of references to all the different genres of music starting to develop in the post-war years. (You can see Pelecanos is having the most fun when Karras finds himself talking jazz in a dangerous black night club.)The Big Blowdown is the first of four books that make up the author’s DC Quartet, where he maps out the past half-century of the city’s history. In earlier books, such as Shoedog, I made claims that Pelecanos was just doing his best imitation of authors he idolized, like Elmore Leonard. The easy comparison here would be with James Ellroy who rewrote the last fifty years of American history as a crime novel. But although Pelecanos’s novel shares some similarities with the Demon Dog’s work, the Big Blowdown is wholly a unique work by a unique voice within the crime fiction canon.