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Onyx reviews: Drama City by George P. Pelecanos

Heroes come in every shape and form, but Lorenzo Brown, the unlikely protagonist of Drama City, is an ex-con, recovering drug addict and former gang member who now spends his days as an animal control officer for the city of Washington, D.C. In his off hours he pines for his daughter—born while he was in prison and the mother denies him any contact with her—and attends Narcotics Anonymous meetings, where he encounters the same people telling the same stories day after day.

In recent novels, George Pelecanos—who produces the HBO series The Wire—has expanded his exploration of the dark and violent culture surrounding the nation's capitol. His earliest books dealt with hard-drinking Greeks who ran bars and delis. Drama City—which is one character's nickname for D.C., a play on Dodge City, referring to the city's violent history—casts an unflinching light on a predominantly Hispanic neighborhood where rival gangs haggle over the ownership of streets and corners to ply their drug trade. This isn't the U.S. capitol city. Politics plays no part in the lives of the citizens outside D.C. central core.

Lorenzo is one of the parole system's success stories. He's no less tough than he was before his incarceration, but he knows that he can't possible survive another eight-year stint behind bars. Since his release, he's been straight, clean and gainfully employed in a profession that means something to him. After participating in an inmate-pet program while in prison, he found he had an affinity for animals and now is a crusader on their behalf, warning, fining and testifying against people who mistreat or neglect their pets as a street investigator for the Humane Society. His understanding of dogs is a subtle metaphor for his knowledge of life on the street. Some neglected and abused animals can never be socialized—euthanasia is the only humane solution.

He's actually doing far better than his probation officer, Rachel Lopez. By day she visits her "offenders" under the cloud of a hangover from her nightly visits to quiet hotel bars where she drinks to excess and then picks up a man she can have sex with and discard the following day. She has a clear understanding, though, about which of her offenders will make it through probation without lapsing and which ones are doomed—destined, even—to be sent back to prison.

When an author writes characters of this caliber, he doesn't need much story. All he needs is a bit of conflict to test their mettle and see how they perform. Drama City builds slowly, introducing all the characters, showing them going about their daily business and establishing the tensions and animosities that will lead to Lorenzo's test. He still sees his old buddies, the drug lords and punks who run with them. When he was arrested, he was a stand-up guy. He didn't rat anyone out and his loyalty was repaid with some getting—started money upon his release. Once he made his decision to go straight clear, his former compadres honored his decision. However, circumstances threaten to force Lorenzo to resort to his old violent ways. A simple territorial mistake escalates into a series of gang murders that spills over into Lorenzo and Rachel's worlds. One can almost hear Michael Corleone from The Godfather saying, "Just when I thought I was getting out, they pull me right back in again."

Every scene is accompanied by the omnipresent soundtrack of popular music that is a feature of Pelecanos's novels. As in Dennis Lehane's Mystic River, the characters in Drama City all have blood on their hands in one way or another. Pelecanos' magic is in turning some of these dregs of society into understandable—if not always sympathetic—people. He provides enough insight into the drug lords and murderers to allow readers to see how societal forces, family neglect or abuse, or a few bad choices sent their lives on a trajectory that would have taken superhuman strength to break free of. Some of these bad men are self-aware enough to know they are lying to themselves and everyone around them about their lives. Others merely accept—or embrace—their lots in life. However, over the course of Lorenzo's regular Narcotics Anonymous meetings, he gets to see that people can and do change, though sometimes in small, gradual steps.

What Pelecanos does toward the end of the novel may surprise readers familiar with his work. His characters seem destined to become victims of or resort to violence. Just when Lorenzo seems to have come to his decision about what he has to do, external forces—from a surprising source—come into play that prevent him from doing so.

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