This book is filled with meh. And when you think there couldn’t possibly be anymore meh, you turn a page and there it is.
Was it the overly detailed geographic descriptions, the product placements throughout, or was it the story filled with ennui? Possibly, all three. Pelecanos languid “The Man Who Came Uptown” was a sucker punch of boredom and feebleness.
But David, you must be exaggerating, it can’t be that bad? Sadly it is.
Phil Ornazian stepped out of his house, a neat brick brownstone southeast of Grant Circle, in Petworth, on the 400 block of Taylor Street, Northwest.
Let me help Pelecanos here.
Phil Ornazian stepped out of his house, a neat brick brownstone southeast of Grant Circle.
Much better. But cutting down Pelecanos’ GPS narration would make a serious dent on 63,000 words that make up “The Man Who Came Uptown”. Take this for example.
Ornazian took Fifth Street south to Park Place, going along the Soldiers’ Home, and then back on Fifth, between the McMillan Reservoir and behind Howard University, bypassing the congestion of Georgia Avenue and coming out around Florida to the western edge of LeDroit Park. He was headed for New York Avenue and a quick route out of the city. Ornazian knew the backstreets and the shortcuts. He didn’t need Waze or any other app. He’d lived in the District his whole life.
But as always it comes down to characters and story. Pelecanos gives us three main characters: a private investigator who dabbles on the wrong side of the law, a bored housewife who is a prison librarian, and a recently released ex-con who has discovered reading and is looking to go straight. Oh, the potential is there, but as boring as that read, the pages of “The Man Who Came Uptown” the tediousness of their lives.
If you’re interested in reading George Pelecanos’s “The Man Who Came Uptown”, and you really shouldn’t be, check it out from the library.
When I’m planning on reading a book, I tend to shy away reading other reviews prior to digging in. But one of the things I did notice about reviews of Walter Mosley’s Down the River Unto the Sea was the lack of discussion about racism. Oddly the book’s publisher leads with a quote from Booklist that mentions institutional racism. But the reviews shy away. White people, and I should know since I’m a 55-year-old white man, call racism “social issues” as it is a bit more palpable to discuss social issues rather than talk about how our place in society is propped up by racism. Let’s not deflect the blame from us white folk and call it institutional racism, it’s racism, American racism.
Mosley’s Down the River Unto the Sea is about Joe King Oliver, a disgraced New York City ex-cop and now a private investigator with an office in Brooklyn Heights. The book opens with Oliver looking out his office window onto Montague Street and he remembers when he was arrested for rape, thrown into Rikers and spent some three months in solitary. Oliver’s time at Rikers broke him as he admits later in the book, “… I remembered my cell in solitary and how my enemies had broken me, made me cower like a dog.”
While Oliver finishes up one case, another case arrives as he’s hired to prove the innocence of a cop killer, A Free Man aka Leonard Compton, a black militant journalist. Taking on the case of a convicted cop killer as a disgraced ex-cop will prove a delicate matter for Oliver. He also decides to finally look into why and who his frame.
It took a bit for the book to get going, but once it did, Mosley hit all the marks of a fantastic hard-boiled private-eye novel. What makes this novel work is Mosley’s ability to create believable characters. Oliver might have his demons – any man broken in solitary would – but his love for his daughter, though not overly played, helps him keep his moral center. Contrary to many detective novels, Oliver is proficient in technology. Quite refreshing to see a private investigator in this day and age who is not a Luddite. Mosley’s descriptions of people of color: “caramel-buttercream”, “his face a deep brown”, “features that spoke of western Africa”, etc. are interesting and expressive. I’m trying to get to an understanding of the title, “Down the River Unto the Sea”. A Google search comes up with only an old treaty with Native Americans and nothing else. I believe it may be an allusion to the freedom Oliver seeks, though I’m unsure.
But the currents that flow through Down the River Unto the Sea is racism in America. Everyday Oliver deals white people’s off-handed racism, it’s like a low-level hum always running in the background. Sometimes it gets more pronounced like when Oliver visits his grandmother in a nursing home.
“May I help you?” a good-figured blonde asked. She was standing behind the reception counter of the upscale retirement residence. I was liking her style.
In her forties and proud, she wore a green-and-pink-speckled silk blouse to accent a tight black skirt.
Some women just don’t get old.
“Joe Oliver,” I said. “I’m here to see my grandmother.”
“Does she work for one of the patients?” Blondie asked, as easy as if she were talking about the weather.
“No.” I was losing the edge of my attraction.
“Um…” She was really confused. “Does she work for the facility?”
“She’s a resident,” I said. “Brenda Naples. Room twenty-seven oh nine.”
For a moment the receptionist, whose name tag read THALIA, doubted me. But then she worked a little magic on the iPad registry.
“She is here,” Thalia said.
“Has been since before you,” I said, “and will be long after you have moved back to New Jersey.”
“I’m very sorry, Mr. Oliver.”
“Me too,” I concurred. “But maybe not for the same reason.”
But the racism is always there. It is one of the many layers of Mosley’s fine Down the River Unto the Sea, a hard-boiled private detective story filled with crooked cops, shady politicians, and the nastiest of criminals. If you’re a fan of Mosley – and you should be – grab yourself a copy of Down the River Unto the Sea. If you’re not a fan, read this book and you will be.