By George P. Pelecanos
It’s been a long time coming getting back to the Washington Quartet. I reviewed the first, The Big Blowdown, in 2007, as did Olman (note he’s also reviewed King Suckerman here, so I’ll keep it short).
It’s the summer of 1976. Dimitri Karras and Marcus Clay are best friends who, through random events, clash with a motley crew of psychotic criminals and hillbillies. All you need to know is that the novel delivers on this premise.
Pelecanos has an excellent ear for the colloquial rhythms of the period he sets his story in. You read some of the sharp dialogue in The Big Blowdown and you’re instantly transported back in the 1940s. The same for King Suckerman’s breezy laid-back slang and the bountiful pop cultural references. You can totally tell Pelecanos came of age as a young man in the 70’s. That he's listened to all the soul and rock albums mentioned in Marcus' record store, and watched all the bad-ass movies that played at the drive-ins and B-houses.
My only complaint was the over-repetition of the King Suckerman reference. The title of the book is the name of the much-anticipated blaxploitation flick that opens up in Washington just before all the shit goes down. It seems that whenever we’re introduced to a new male character, the movie invariably gets brought up, and someone else always goes: “the one about the pimp?” Ta da bam ta da boom. I was quite surprised that someone of Pelecanos’ stature would resort to such a schticky device.
Then you read one of the character’s rundown of the fictional flick he just watched, and all is forgiven:
King Suckerman started out exactly that way, though from the beginning the audience sensed that there was something unsettling going on in the film. For one thing, Ron St. John, who played the title role, he was one stone ugly motherfucker, scarred in the face and narrow of shoulder and chest. Cooper had liked The Mack, thought it was more authentic than most, but in truth Max Julien as the pimp had always bothered him. Julien could be tough, but with his smooth skin, too-easy smile, and deep dimples, he was way too pretty to be believable as the hard man a pimp had to be. You needed someone tougher in the face and body to make the story true. But Ron St. John? He went all the way in the other direction.
Ugly as he was, though, Ron St. John was cool. Cool and bad. No one could fuck with King Suckerman, ‘cause the man feared no one and had all the bitches in his stable.