Friday, August 1, 2008

Them: People in Fiction

Working-class Boston.

Working-class Washington, D.C., The District.

Working-class New York.

Dennis Lehane.

George Pelecanos.

Richard Price.

To extend the calculus:

Mystic River; Gone, Baby, Gone

The Night Gardener, The Turnaround

Clockers, Lush Life

Three writers who might have never met in real life but who might well as individuals each have read the other two. Now all three meet in the context of another work, the sixty-episode Balzacian novel-for-television, The Wire, set in the working class tumult of Baltimore, a city that has some similarities to the places where each of the three writers are from. The three are brought together by yet another writer, David Simon, whose visions of the facets of Baltimore came together to form this epic novel-for-television, The Wire.

Working with Ed Burns, a former Baltimore homicide cop, Simon first put together an ensemble TV series, Homicide: Life on the Streets, based on Burns's career with the Baltimore force. In an effective way, these five men have set in motion a force or, of you prefer, a form for the kinds of novel Balzac evolved into writing, indeed the kinds of novels Lehane, Price, and Pelecanos are now evolving into writing. The definitions of fictional prototypes had, I suggest, already moved beyond the hero/heroine;villain/villainess; pivotal (you know, Iago, and some of the guys in Lonesome Dove) morphing into protagonist and antagonist, which is to say he or she who causes things to happen; cohorts or characters whose loyalties may shift, and messengers, characters who actually bring messages on stage, and exemplary characters, or men and women who serve as examples of what may or may not happen to the front-rank characters. Perhaps responsible for their choice as writers for The Wire was the growing tendency of Lehane, Pelecanos, and Price in their novels to blur the lines between the types of characters, installing in them a combination of edge, heart, and desire that gave them a standing in a story they might not have had before, certainly not in some of the genre fiction I've been reminiscing about in recent posts.

Today, seated outside a 7-11 convenience store on upper State Street, I saw a character right out of The Wire and Lush Life and Clockers and The Night Gardener. She held up a sign as so many homeless or destitute people do in such places as Santa Barbara and Los Angeles, asking for help and/or money. What reached me about her was the wording: Lost my job, my home, my dignity. That got me. The dignity part. Those two words told me more about her pain than words relating to job loss or home loss. That made her an individual who stood forth from a type. Actually, looking at her, I saw that she still had some dignity left. It wasn't all gone, although it mayn't have had much of a shelf life to count on. Price, Pelecanos, and Lehane capture such facets in their characters to the point where even the ones who are doing things on the slant side of The Social Contract emerge as individuals with a semblance of authenticity, agenda, and structure.

More and more, story is coming to mean the gritty, edgy sense of awareness it takes to make any kind of headway in the structured hallways of society. In my last work session with Brian Fagan and our editing focus to what we both hope will be a similar--The Wire- type--approach to of all things the Cro-Magnon (our Ice Age forbears), Brian let slip that their average life span was mid twenties. I jumped on that. Kids four and five, barely able to walk would have been given chores related to the Foraging life, marriage/mating probably age thirteen or fourteen. First round of kids maybe fifteen or, with luck, sixteen. Consequences: A lot of fifteen, sixteen-year-old orphans. And in our discussion of such seemingly recondite matters so far as archaeological approaches to drama were concerned, we both came to the place where we recognized the need the actor undergoes when the actor becomes another person: We have to see, feel, endure the life of those individuals on the icy streets of the past to bring them to the page not with the standard bag of tricks of the archaeologist, the artifacts and of course those cave drawings, but with the occasions of hunger and homelessness and dignity.

Speaking of The Wire, remember the character Russell "Stringer" Bell, a no-nonsense enforcer for the Barksdale family drug trade. As I recall it, Bell got A's in is economics classes at Community College, had an extensive library at home and, while not adverse to ordering up some physical violence, was seen from time to time consulting Adam Smith's The Wealth of Nations. There was one memorable character who--spoiler here for those who don't know the story--when he was killed, left a sense of shock and loss to the characters and the viewers.

The real story is not in the plot; it is resident in the complexity of the characters and in the surprising things they have to do, whether in the Ice Age landscape, the streets of Baltimore, or Pelecanos' off-Dupont Circle Washington D.C.

1 comment:

x said...

Thanks for the specific recommendations. My spouse had asked me if you liked Lush Life more than Clockers because he just read the latter and thought it superb. As for Stringer Bell, aside from his intelligence -- or as an extension of it -- I just loved the way he tried to run the drug trade like actual corporate board meetings using Robert Rules of Orders. The mixed of street language mixed with corporate business rules and turn-taking was absurdly hilarious but also so poignant of what he could have been in life.