“I’m a strong believer in second chances,” says George Pelecanos, whose new novel, The Man Who Came Uptown, his first in five years, explores themes of justice, redemption, and the transformative power of the written word. Known for his work as an executive producer on the groundbreaking HBO series The Wire, Treme, and most recently as the cocreator (with David Simon) of The Deuce, Pelecanos has returned to the form that put him on the map.
Informed by the author’s own experience conducting reading and writing programs in prisons and jails, The Man takes readers into a D.C. jail, where 28-year-old Michael Hudson awaits trial for armed robbery. Anna Byrne, a young librarian, brings books into the jail and runs a regular book discussion group. She has earned the respect of the inmates, many of whom had never been exposed to books before. Under Byrne’s careful guidance, Hudson discovers an entire world that he didn’t realize was available to him. She gives him novels by John Steinbeck, Chris Offutt, and Elmore Leonard, which transport him to a world outside the confines of the jail’s walls, free of the shackles of race, economic background, and social status.
“When he read a book, the door to his cell was open,” Pelecanos writes. “He could step right through it. He could walk those hills under that big blue sky. Breathe the fresh air around him. See the shadows moving over the trees. When he read a book, he was not locked up. He was free.”
“Sometimes a private investigator I know will take me into a facility to meet an inmate who wants to speak with me,” Pelecanos says. “It’s not allowed, but I bypass the rules by registering as an investigator’s assistant. Hudson was based on some of the thoughtful, intelligent men I’ve met in lockup.”
The novel provides a revealing glimpse into a system that has failed many of the men, who followed a path from juvenile offender to career criminal before they’d even become adults. For a precious few, books illuminate the way to a better path forward. Sadly, as Pelecanos shows us, a majority have been so damaged by institutionalization that they are simply lost in the correctional system. “There’s a science to brain development,” he says. “The brains of teenage boys are crowded with impulse and adrenaline. By the time they hit their 20s, their brains are dominated by conscience and reason. From my own teens into young adulthood, I was in and out of trouble. And here I am now, a different person. The organizations I work with stay with these young men when they get out in the world and help them find a way to integrate themselves back into society.”
The careful reader of The Man Who Came Uptown will notice that Pelecanos challenges assumptions about the skin colors of his characters. “No one in this book is identified by race,” he explains. “White writers, myself included, identify black characters by their race but never white characters. Black writers tend to do the same thing, in reverse. We’ve been programmed to write that way and to expect the color of the character to be delivered to us when we read. I wanted to try something different.”
The fates of the three main characters—Hudson, Byrne, and Ornazian—provide the dramatic framework for what is perhaps Pelecanos’s finest novel to date.
Hudson suddenly finds himself released from jail when Phil Ornazian, an investigator for Hudson’s lawyer, convinces the state’s key witness that it would be in his best interests not to testify. As we soon discover, Ornazian runs a side business robbing drug dealers with his friend, Thaddeus Ward, a bail bondsman and ex-cop. Hudson returns home to live with his mother until he can get himself established. He quickly finds a dishwashing job at a local restaurant and devotes himself to changing the course of his life. He has become a voracious reader and one of his first priorities is to get a library card (his first)—and he soon discovers bookstores.
Things are looking good until Ornazian appears. It’s payback time, and the investigator needs a wheelman for his next criminal outing. Hudson faces a classical dilemma: will he follow the new path or drift back into his old life? Meanwhile, Byrne runs into Hudson, and the two characters maintain a careful, platonic friendship. Byrne is married to a man she loves, but their life together seems plotted out in a comfortable, if prescribed, arc. She resigns herself to the fact that life isn’t perfect, gets satisfaction from her work, and tries to stay grateful. “I’m intrigued by people who make their modest living doing good things for others,” Pelecanos says. “Teachers, nonprofit workers, librarians… those are the heroes in our society.”
These days, the 61-year-old author divides his time between Silver Spring, Md., and New York City, where he’s been busy working on The Deuce. Starring James Franco and Maggie Gyllenhaal, the series masterfully documents the lives of prostitutes and follows the rise of the hardcore pornography industry in 1970s New York. “The show is about the commodification of sex and also about labor,” he says. “In terms of labor, women are at the bottom of the food chain. The prostitutes give their earnings to their ‘man.’ The porn actresses are working in a factory where their own flesh is sold as product.”
With an uncompromising attention to period detail, the show is a time capsule. Pelecanos and Simon plan to carry the series forward into the mid-1980s—documenting the rise of HIV, the real estate boom that “cleaned up” Times Square, and the relocation of the porn industry to the West Coast. With a writer’s room that boasts the combined talents of Pelecanos, Richard Price, Megan Abbott, Lisa Lutz, and others, it’s no surprise that the writing sizzles.
Asked if he has any other projects going, Pelecanos offers a tantalizing response: “None I can speak of, but I can give you a hint. Up the road, we are talking about putting the old gang back together to do a crime thing set in Baltimore. And no, it’s not a sequel to The Wire. But it’s going to be good.”
Patrick Millikin is the editor of Phoenix Noir and The Highway Kind, and is a frequent contributor to PW.