The fourth novel from DC’s acclaimed crime writer George Pelecano’s, this stand-alone piece marks something of a departure from the Nick Stefanos trilogy which preceded it and the books that heralded GP as a fresh new voice on the pre-millennial crime scene. But whereas those works adopted many of the classic hardboiled P.I. story devices (first-person narration, a flawed but heroic protagonist), SHOEDOG creates an entirely different flavour, delving into the realms of spare, unapologetic noir of the type rarely seen these days.
Written in the third person, our central character is Constantine, an archetypical drifter whose absence of personality seems to be his defining trait. Early on, we learn that he spent time in the military, and then went floating through the U.S., Asia and Europe for seventeen years. He also seems to have a violent, pathological streak, something he refers to chillingly as ‘the beat’.
Although Constantine is the central character, the swift and economical writing head-hops between a bunch of lowlifes he gets entangled with after hitching a ride with a likable ex-con called Polk who is getting ready to pull one last heist. Polk persuades Constantine to tag along, and this chance encounter opens the floodgates for a fast, violent piece of unrefined pulp fiction.
One thing I like about this book is it doesn’t pull-punches – pervading through the whole plot, from chapter one onwards, is a sense of fatalism: we know all will not end well, and that there most certainly will be blood. We’re amongst degenerates and lowlifes, addicts and perverts, psychopaths and liars, and in such un-salubrious company, you know this won’t be the Get-A-Long Gang.
Bravely, GP has resisted the urge to make his protagonist likable – on the contrary, Constantine is misanthropic, mercurial, even dangerous. Chapter Three focuses on his backstory (going a little too deep in my view), and describes his journey through the States, hoping from one spot to another without plan:
‘For the next few months Constantine made his way up north and the southwest towards California. During this time he met few people. The solitude did not feel odd to him, as Constantine felt that he had always been alone…’
Then later, when he encounters a young boy:
‘…Constantine picked him up and held the boy to his chest, immediately feeling something that scared him, a connection to the child that brought on an odd but acutely heavy sense of loss…’
A sense of nihilism is a common trait in literary drifters (Camus’s ‘THE OUTSIDER’, Sallis’ Driver in ‘DRIVE’); but by the end of this book, when deceit and greed have imploded the heists and blood is on all the survivor’s hands, Constantine makes moves for redemption, choosing not to flee, but instead, to come to the aid of the Don’s girl who he’s been seeing.
Existential is a term bandied about a bit too much in my view, but in SHOEDOG I think the term is apt – the book reminds me of a cross between early Paul Auster (‘THE MUSIC OF CHANCE’ in particular’) seen through the visceral lens of early Tarantino; it congers up questions about how chance determines fate, and whether we should give a damn about hurting people when we go after the things we want. The violence, although graphic, is thematically suitable, and adds to the story rather than detracts, as violence should.
And violent SHOEDOG is. Those familiar with GP’s work will know his set pieces are raw and ultra-realistic – heads get blown off, cops gunned to pieces, etc., etc. in lesser hands this would be bandit-porn, but GP has a knack of getting the reader invested in his characters, no matter how despicable and reprehensible they are, so when their jaws exploded from a pump-action shell, we feel a perverse sense of loss.
As with all the writer’s works, setting plays a key role. GP’s Washington D.C. is impoverished and sleazy, characterised by harsh industry and divergence between rich, poor, colours and creeds. His knack for dialogue and colloquialisms is on a par with Elmore Leonard, and the attention to contemporary culture (music, fashion, drug use) is utterly convincing. I really admire his ability to write convincing black and minority-ethnic characters which do not resort to cliché but who speak in a way that could be contrived as racist stereotyping. I was recently advised by a literary agent to N.O.T. imitate this device in my writing, as most publishers would run a mile from anything that could be seen to be putting characters into race boxes. I suspect GP considered this, but then just thought, nah, I’m doing this my way. And thank Christ he did.
In true GP fashion, mid-way in the book there is a three chapter bar-crawl scene which sees our gang of lowlifes relate over booze and cannabis as they journey into D.C.’s nightlife, happening upon Nick Stefano’s ‘The Spot’ bar by chance. This universe overlaps between books is a great trick, if handled well, which it is here– interweaving characters from previous stories into the current story arc, so that the reader is left with the feeling that the author has created a unique literary universe.
The denouement comes with a decent twist, and ends with a bang – without giving away spoilers, it ain’t pretty. But you’ve guessed that already, right? I remember reading an interview in which GP explained that in SHOEDOG, he wanted to write straight-up noir, the kind of one-sitting reads that used to come out by the dozen in cheap paperbacks during the 70s and 80s. Coming in at 200 odd pages SHOEDOG, hits this mark for me. I’ve read it at least three times, and can open it on any page and read some without feeling bored. Don’t expect to leave the book feeling warm and cosy; but you will get sent on an explosive ride that delves into the nastier cavities of the soul, where no one is innocent, and there’s no such thing as good guys.