Saturday, October 24, 2009

Book Review: The Way Home by George Pelecanos

The Way Home by PelecanosI suppose that it was inevitable: a weak effort from George Pelecanos. The Way Home is the first book I have read by Pelecanos that did not succeed in creating a memorable world full of interesting characters and a fast moving storyline.

The Way Home is maudlin and disappointing. It would likely not have been published had it been submitted by a first-time writer. But Pelecanos has built up a solid fan base and loads of credibility, and can get away with the occasional clunker.

Pelecanos has never been a great writer in much the same way that many of the famous noir writers were not great writers. A solid, entertaining story teller? Absolutely. But skewed syntax and more than a few strangely constructed sentences always stand out in a book by Pelecanos. But it usually doesn't matter, because he has that talent for putting together believable characters in a few deft strokes and then pushing the narrative forward to an explosive if somewhat predictable conclusion.

His most recent effort, however, takes the speechifying that has started creeping into his novels as of late to a whole new, utterly tiresome level. The characters here are flat and will elicit barely any empathy from readers. And the main premise around which the book is built blasts away the suspension holding up any semblance of belief.

We have a father who has always been hard on his son, and the son who predictably goes off the rails, starts using drugs, and gets locked up in a juvenile detention home. Flash forward about eight or nine years, and dear sonny boy is out in the world working for his father's carpet installation business. The classic bag of money that has been at the heart of so many crime novels makes an appearance here. But the way that things play out just isn't likely.

Every plot twist seems to be introduced for the sole purpose of allowing more clich├ęd pablum to flow from the gobs of the characters. We don't even really get to see the protagonist in action except for a petty juvenile crime that originally landed him in reform school in the early part of the book. Too much effort is devoted to the cause that the author is championing.

We get it: Pelecanos believes that the way young offenders are locked up is wrong. That's the whole problem. It comes across as a book-long rant upon which a weak story is hung. As opposed to a theme that is smoothly woven into the storyline.

Not only is it a weak effort, but it made me look back and reassess some of the other books that Pelecanos has written. Perhaps a similar storyline played out numerous times was not something to criticize at the time because the results were so entertaining. But when none of the elements that make so many of Pelecanos's books enjoyable are present, the same revenge ending with two individuals tooling up to commit justifiable murder falls flat.

Why exactly does a writer like Pelecanos produce a book like this after so many effective efforts? Perhaps he just ran out of the creative juice that spurred him on for so long. Maybe it was a rush job for a paycheque. Maybe the success from his work on The Wire and his energy being taken up elsewhere didn't allow him to put in the necessary time.

If you've heard that Pelecanos is a very good crime writer, you should still believe it. Just don't start with this novel. In fact, give The Turnaround a miss as well—his most recent novel before The Way Home also suffers from some of the same problems. Start with one of his classics, such as Hard Revolution or The Big Blowdown. Let's hope this trend doesn't continue and Pelecanos gets back to writing the great crime novels that made him so popular in the first place.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Review: Dexter Season 4 Premiere

The most frightening thing about the season four premiere of Dexter is the sight of John Lithgow's bare arse.

We are treated to this horrific sight on two occasions. Unfortunately, that is the biggest shock in what is an otherwise worn out show that has apparently failed to recover from a disappointing third season.

As season four begins, Dexter and his wife Rita are living in suburbia with their newborn child. Early on, Dexter flubs his courtroom testimony and a killer walks free. Take a wild swing in the dark and guess what happens next. You got it. Dexter is going to track down the nasty piece of work and lay a butchering on him, replete with all the accoutrements we've come to expect—the drop sheets, photos of the victim's victims (where on earth does Dexter get those photos and when does he find the time to get them framed?), and the assorted weapons. But first, the show has got to give us a glimpse of this year's major storyline and kick start some tired out sub-plots that have been meandering on with slight variations for the past three seasons.

The major storyline—the one that will slowly evolve over the entire season—is the one about the serial killer played by Lithgow. And in another demonstration of just how little imagination the writers of this show have left, we are told straight up by Dexter that "Trinity's [the nickname given to the Lithgow character] the most successful serial killer to get away with it." When facts like that have to be brazenly announced in episode one instead of using suspense and back story—it is likely an indication of quality of the season to come.

Debra is still involved with Anton—the oaf of an informant who she hooked up with in season three. The writers of the show seem fully aware that season three was lacking the appeal of seasons one and two, so they have brought back Frank Lundy (the aging FBI agent played by Keith Carradine) who Deb was involved with in season two.

And Deb is determined to find out which informant her father had an affair with years ago. And then we can know for certain what was already telegraphed to us in season three—that Deb and Dexter are actually biological siblings.

The character of Deb is in fact, one of the most mundane and annoying aspects of the show. Everyone time she uses the word "fucking" in her conversation, it punctuates exactly how devoid of new ideas these writers are. Just as this habit in the real world demonstrates someone lacking in imagination, here it is the same.

Tiresome and Predictable

The little nuances that added to the show in seasons one and two are meaningless without the suspense, clever twists, and great dialogue.

Now it's simply annoying to see Dexter don that stupid, long sleeved, tight-fitting, olive shirt and know that he is going to kill someone again. The weary internal patter/voice over is still there. The only problem is, Dexter has long since ceased to have anything interesting to say. It's just variations on the blandness of being forced to kill people, haunted by this, messed up by that, wot a burden it all is etc.

And hey, here's the laziest aspect of every show popping up again—that wonderful computer of Dexter's at work that gives him every last bit of information about the people that he decides to kill. There is absolutely no sleuthing or clever problem-solving involved.

In a laugh-out-loud scene with all the usual subtlety of this spiraling farce of a show, Dexter's wife says "Aren't you as horny as I am?" Just as the rest of the show is bland and uninspiring, this scene is bereft of any appeal. And so, in keeping with his tired demeanor, Dexter is as uninterested as many viewers will be.

Dexter has ceased to be the clever show that challenged viewers to analyze their beliefs about right and wrong. It is now simply a vehicle for crudely set-up revenge scenes and a whole lot of nastiness for people who like blood and gore. There is no longer any tension or feeling of emotional involvement when violence occurs. The opening scene when guest star John Lithgow slices the femoral artery of a young woman who he is simultaneously strangling in the bathtub makes this repulsively apparent. And here is apparently another trend that the show will carry on until its demise—grade B has-been actors brought in to play the nasty for an entire season.

As the season premiere winds down, a sleep deprived Dexter careens off the road with a corpse in his trunk. This cliffhanger ending is perhaps the only way that the creators of the show will convince viewers to tune in for the second and subsequent installments.