George Pelecanos is a thriller writer with more than 20 novels listed among his works. The Man Who Came Uptown is his third book that deals with characters who are released into the world after incarceration.
One such character is Michael, whose world is expanded through book recommendations he receives from Anna, the librarian in the D.C. jail where he is locked up. And after his release, Michael must decide if this newfound knowledge will affect his choices. While the work is fiction, the inspiration is not.
“In many districts and states there are libraries in these places, and the D.C. jail library was put in there by the D.C. Public Library system,” said Pelecanos. “And what was interesting to me is when I met the librarian there, there was no physical space for a library, so she was a mobile librarian, meaning every day she would pack a cart up with books and go to a different cell block every single day and she would state the books according to the inmates in that block — the books that she thought they would enjoy.”
Like the real librarian in the D.C. jail, Anna — with help from Pelecanos — chooses books for Michael that she thinks might help him after his release.
“The books that he's reading actually play a role in how he makes his decisions later on in the novel — some crucial decisions about his life and how he's going to treat people and react to people,” Pelecanos said. “Books like Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men and Willy Vlautin’s Northline are really about people trying to understand each other, you know, people who are not like you to reach out and try and understand each other and to show small kindnesses to people.
"Because those very small acts, they might seem minor at that time, [but] they can really impact a person's life. And he learns that through the books that he's reading.”
In addition to using Of Mice and Men to help his character Michael, Pelecanos included an idea from John Steinbeck to help readers: the idea that “in every bit of honest writing in the world there is a base theme. … Try to understand each other.”
“One of the reasons that passage is in the book is because we seem to have lost our way collectively as a country," Pelecanos said. "I think that had I put that in a novel five years ago people would have thought I was being corny. Right now I hope they read it and they think, ‘That's not such a bad idea.’ Because there's so much hate being thrown around right now and so much talk about ‘the other.'
"Recently one of the big commentators was putting down diversity. You know, ‘why do we need diversity?’ And all these things that we thought we'd put behind us — this hate, racism, you know, events in Charlottesville — all the things that we thought were in the rearview mirror are not, obviously, and we need to think about who we are as Americans and who we want to be. And I think who we should want to be [are] people who reach back and try to help people that are less fortunate than we are, for one thing, and also look at people that are not like you and try to understand, you know, and try to love them because that's how we're going to be better as a country.
"And I know that there are going to be a lot of people snickering about all that now, but I don't really care, you know, because I feel that way. I mean we're in a very intense and desperate situation right now as a country. And it's time for all of us — and I don't mean conservative, I mean all of us — to look at ourselves and ask where do we want to go."
George Pelecanos will be in Wichita for a book event for The Man Who Came Uptown on Thursday, September 13, at Watermark Books. The event begins at 6:00 p.m.