George Pelecanos's THE CUT

This is a book that I had read back in April, lucky enough was I to receive an advance reader’s edition. I liked the book so much that upon its official publication, last week, I decided to re-read it, too jealous was I of those who would be experiencing it for the first time.

I wrote ‘experiencing’ because reading The Cut felt like, to me, being driven around in town by someone who knows every place and every one; we're cruisin' without hurry or worry. There’s music playing of course, maybe a Morricone soundtrack or maybe just the soundtrack of the city and its citizens. The temperature, although a bit warm and humid, gets freshened up by a soft cool wind as we drive into the night. And the air is thick with possibilities, both good and bad. But we’re ready. We ain’t in a hurry. Something will definitely unravel.

And it does.

The Cut makes a realistic observation on what is going on in the lives of American veterans. Pelecanos puts some focus on the limited choices and opportunities that many of them have to face in their after-military years, and about what they will decide to do or not do.  

One of them, Spero Lucas, is 29 years old, fresh out of the Marine Corps. He fought in Iraq for 10 years after September 11, 2001. “A sobering decade. A decade that stole his youth.” While Spero was still in Iraq, his father died. His loss is made greater by the fact he didn’t get to say goodbye to his dada, so he visits the grave regularly, leaving a dozen roses every time. Fortunately, Spero has a great relationship with his brother Leo, who teaches in a high school, and with his mother, who still copes with the loss of her husband. The love of a family helps Spero adapt to his new life. Something not every veteran can rely on. For some, it gets worse if there’s no job either. When overseas, they were used to taking orders and knew what they were supposed to do. Here, there’s often nothing to do. “Lucas and Marquis had been lucky to find something. Most did, eventually. The ones who couldn’t were in for some long hurt.”

That’s only the ones who come back without any major physical injury.
The job Spero Lucas had been lucky to find was investigating for a D.A., in Washington. Or as he explains to Constance, his girlfriend, he finds things for people, he retrieves their lost or stolen items. Sometimes money. And now, Spero is hired by Anwan Hawkins, a drug dealer serving time in the D.C. Jail. Hawkins wants Spero to find packages that were stolen from his street employees, or to retrieve the money if the drug has already been sold.   

The Cut has more maturity and less rage than earlier Pelecanos stories (the Stefanos books for example) and at times there’s even a zen-like quality to it. The Cut is a story about unselfish sacrifices, about trust, about family and about friendship. As in most Pelecanos novels, it is also about choices, about life in general, and about how choices influence that life. In an interview he gave to journalist/writer Craig McDonald, Daniel Woodrell said that he saw his books as "slices of life stories". This is exactly what Pelecanos does: he gets you right in the middle of people's lives, at a point where they have a full baggage of experiences behind them and more in front.

The Cut doesn’t stay away from social issues (it’s a Pelecanos book, what were you expecting) and the author certainly doesn’t put rose glasses on. Here, Pelecanos doesn’t need to make a social commentary; his description of the inside of the school where Leo teaches says it all: “Millions of feet had travelled heavily over these steps since the building had opened almost a century ago, rendering the stone concave. Leo’s classroom windows were covered in iron, heavy-mesh screens, allowing fractured, dim sunlight to enter. The room’s sole computer, donated years earlier, was ancient; its printer did not print. Pencils were hard to come by. Some of the desks and blackboards looked more than fifty years old. Leo didn’t think too hard on the lack of supplies, the missing ceiling tiles, the bathrooms with no doors on their stalls, the stopped-up toilets, the grim, barely-lit halls…”

Pelecanos knows that this represents the situation in (too) many schools and that not many readers will be surprised by his description. But schools are often the only hope of a better future for these kids. So what message are we sending if that’s how we prepare those who are supposed to build that future?

There’s also the matter of the state of the prison system: Hawkins explains one aspect of it to Spero “When I was a kid, the majority of people in lockup was in for violent crime. Now most of the people in prison are in for non-violent drug offenses.” And there’s also the issue of how the media deals with the coverage of criminality today “A notable decrease in violent crime in the District made the murder of young black men and women more newsworthy than it had been in the past, meriting front-page placement.” Although it doesn’t seem the same for everyone “The Post continued to routinely bury the violent deaths of D.C.’s young black citizens inside the paper, telling its readership implicitly that black life was worth less than that of whites, and that policy, apparently, was never going to change.”

George Pelecanos writes like a friend who sees what's wrong with us and knows he needs to point it out, even though he's aware that it can (and probably will) hurt us, but he does it in our best interest, knowing we’ll probably thank him later for it. We accept this because he also possesses the gift of uncovering beauty in the darkest of places: after showing us the flaws of our society, a few paragraphs or pages later he highlights the brighter sides, either in describing a neighborhood, in underlining simple life pleasures like having a drink, talking about this and that, or making love. Pelecanos’s strong but simple dialogues reveal more human emotions than many writers can convey in entire books of trying to analyze their characters.  

The Cut is not a book for readers who need the adrenaline rush of a thriller-ride, page-turner, heart-attack giver or hair-raising story of a crazy serial killer/kidnapper/or whatever. This is a book that you read while sipping a good red wine, sitting comfortably in your favorite chair under a soft lighting and the sounds of the city around you, or while drinking a cold beer on the porch with a background of crickets cricketing and dogs barking at kids laughing and running. You read and you don't worry about tomorrow. But you do worry about Spero, Leo, Constance, Ernest and others too; you don't get a heart attack brought on by too much adrenaline, but you can get heart-broken just the same; we all know this can be almost as painful, if not more.

The title of the book, with its different meanings, fits perfectly: it is Spero’s 40% cut when he retrieves lost items; it is the complicated and painful cut between combat life and life back at home for veterans; it is the non-physical cut suffered through pains like mourning a loved one, being heart-broken from a love lost or from being abandoned by a parent, and it is the cut that needs to be made in dilemmas, by taking a difficult decision when choices will inevitably impact on your life. It can also be the writer’s cuts that produce these “slices of lives” that Woodrell mentioned.

The Cut is all of this, and more.

Here’s a work of love, vintage Pelecanos, by the author who shows us the reality of every day America from a D.C. perspective. While revisiting some familiar themes, Pelecanos doesn’t repeat himself and he expertly keeps stretching the boundaries of the crime genre. Don’t be fooled by the tag of crime writing because this is simply a great novel.   

September 2011 

1 comment:

  1. I read The Cut a couple weeks ago, and agree with your comments. It does move slower with less violence, as you say. I ended up liking Leo more than Spero a little more for his teaching at Cardoza. The inner city high school is always in the local news here with some trouble. Thanks for the pointer to a meaty review. I enjoyed reading it.

    Ed Lynskey

    Ed Lynskey