Fact and fiction intersect in Pelecanos’ latest novel

‘The Man Who Came Uptown’ highlights real DC Public Library branch for inmates

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George Pelecanos is a prolific and respected author whose work is often praised by critics for accurately portraying the District. In his latest novel, The Man Who Came Uptown, readers familiar with neighborhoods like Petworth, Park View and Brightwood will quickly recognize familiar spots and may even know the exact house in which a character lives.

The book’s details and imagery are so vivid that it’s easy to see what makes Pelecanos a sought-after writer for the screen, and he has written for shows like The Wire and is co-creator with David Simon of The Deuce, both for HBO. DC-born, Pelecanos lives in Maryland and first came on the scene with his Nick Stefanos series and earned further acclaim with novels like The Night Gardener.

This latest novel highlights a branch of the DC Public Library that many residents will never visit located in the DC Jail. But when one of the best-known writers associated with your city writes crime fiction, it’s possible to be of a few minds about their work. It’s exciting and fun to see the city presented in a way that comes off as more or less authentic, and to be provided a window into overlooked aspects of the city. But fact and fiction blur to such an extent that it can leave a reader wondering how realistic a portrayal it really is, and how much that separation of real and imagined DC matters.

It’s equal parts troubling and important to think about the degree to which the underground and marginal lives shaped by dubious morals that populate Pelecanos novels swirl in the real-life city. It’s troubling in the ways that reading the news can be, depicting a city plagued by crime, struggling with the racial injustices of the justice system, and navigating the awkward ongoing effects of gentrification. It’s incumbent on all of us to really consider these dynamics and think about how we perpetuate or ameliorate them. If that’s Pelecanos’ aim, he’s successful.

And yet, whenever I read a Pelecanos novel, something nags at me. The violence and vigilante justice feel old-fashioned, and while some of his work is set in eras gone by, much is contemporary, and still the character’s dialogue and perspectives feel stodgy.

It’s a problem best personified by Pelecanos’ detectives and investigators — in this latest novel, an Armenian-American named Phil Ornazian — who show through their interactions that they may be down, but they’re far from woke. Their toxic masculinity is often overwhelming and off-putting, particularly in light of the #MeToo movement. Pelecanos recently took some flak on Twitter for a New York Times “By The Book” profile, in which he didn’t mention any women among his favorite authors or those he’s reading now. He named only one female author — Harper Lee — and not in a positive way.

Call it confounding, then, that early on in The Man Who Came Uptown a female prison librarian suggests to a male inmate seeking a book that will explain women to him, “Maybe you should read a novel written by a woman. That might give you an idea of the kinds of things that go on in a woman’s head.” One assumes (and hopes) that Pelecanos has, in real life, offered and accepted that advice, but one can still wish that a writer so closely tied to this region with such a far-reaching platform would sing the praises not just of Edward P. Jones, but of at least one of the region’s many female writers, like Katherine Heiny or Dolen Perkins-Valdez.

What makes Pelecanos’ fiction interesting, though, is the line he walks between entertainment and illumination when he writes about real places, people and programs. The Man Who Came Uptown centers on a DC Jail inmate, Michael Hudson, who discovers an untapped passion for reading through the jail’s DC Public Library services. A librarian, known as Miss Anna to her patrons, brings a cart of books to inmates weekly. The best part isn’t just that the services are real, but learning they’ve grown from a cart to a full-fledged branch inside the jail since Pelecanos started the novel.

The library system’s website doesn’t highlight the program, but circulation data provided by DCPL show a tremendous growth in reach. In 2015, when the cart first made its rounds, 1,270 inmates checked out 4,586 books. So far in 2018, 4,750 people have already made use of the library branch, borrowing more than 56,325 titles.

Pelecanos spent time talking to DCPL Jail librarian Danielle Zoller while doing research for the book. She believes one of the best, most important things about the service is that it creates a space for inmates to simply feel human.

“It’s like a branch on the street where people can come in and browse, and it provides an opportunity for people not to have to think about their case, or upcoming parole hearing,” Zoller said in an interview.

She appreciates that the novel “brings so much awareness to what having a well-funded library in a jail is capable of doing. It’s not necessarily unique what we do. We’re just fortunate to be well-organized, well-funded and well-supported. You have a character who develops a love of pleasure reading fiction. The first thing most people think of in this kind of setting is education materials, GED prep and so on, which we have. But library fiction is great because it can help us empathize with others.”

The value of empathy and the ability to act upon it is, ideally, what readers will take away from The Man Who Came Uptown. Zoller reports that her DCPL library branch “patrons really enjoy George’s books and check them out quite frequently.”

Despite their flaws, Pelecanos’ books do what any novel does by entertaining and educating, illuminating and humanizing. The most interesting thing I learned as a result of reading the novel is that readers who enjoy Pelecanos’ work as patrons of the DC Jail Library can apply for a DCPL card that they can take with them when they are released from the facility.

To date, 1,127 library cards have been issued there and seven inmates have registered their children for the library’s “STAR: Books From Birth” program, sure to inspire a new generation of readers.

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