Buddy Read: The Man Who Came Uptown by George Pelecanos
The Man Who Came Uptown by George Pelecanos
Genre: General Fiction
Published 2018, 263 pages
My sister, Donna, and I have picked a couple books a month that we read and share our thoughts on. We pulled the books from random websites, award lists, etc. just looking for a variety of genres and jacket blurbs that sounded either interesting, or something we'd not usually pick on our own. Last month was Howl's Moving Castle (a YA fantasy) and The Picture of Dorian Gray (neither of us finished that one). Our first one finished this month is this novel by George Pelecanos.
A quick read, I enjoyed the story, partly because of the nod to all the good that books can accomplish!
"When he read a book, the door to his cell was open. He could step right through it. He could walk those hills under that big blue sky. Breathe the fresh air around him. ... When he read a book, he was not locked up. He was free."
The core story isn't that unusual - a guy is in prison, a guy on the outside pressures the witness and the prisoner is released, now owing a favor. Prisoner tries to go straight but is forced back into crime to pay the 'favor'. Trouble ensues.
So what sets this book apart? The writing style for one and the literary incorporation of books and book quotes. Set in Washington DC, it has a distinctly noir vibe - almost a nod to the Elmore Leonard era. As the prisoner (Michael Hudson) discovers the pleasures of reading from the prison librarian, Anna, he resolves to turn his life around. And he tries, he really does. Till the guy who got him released comes to him and insists on his help to commit a crime.
"As Michael read the book, he felt the pain and struggles of Allison Johnson. He was in her pathetic motel room, listening to her Patti Page and Brenda Lee records, hearing her imaginary conversations with that old-time actor Paul Newman. ... He closed his eyes and imagined it. The book had taken him somewhere else. He was outside himself and his troubled mind."
Don't the best books do this for us? They take us to a different place, with different people, a peek into a different lifestyle or country or even to a different world. Ahhhh, books!
My overriding quibble with the story is the excessive use of street names and descriptions to set the place - for those familiar with DC, it was probably a fun detail; for me, it became annoying - a whole paragraph full of street names and corners and houses did NOT help set the scene for me at all. On the positive, the dialog is smart, the characters realistic, and the story made better for all the book references.
I found this book to be just okay. To me, it wasn’t all that interesting although it looks like a lot of Goodreads reviewers would disagree with me. It almost felt like two stories shoved together. First you have Anna, the prison librarian, befriending Michael, and their relationship; then you have Michael’s dilemma of trying to stay on the right side of the law when Phil, a private investigator, claims a favor from him that is illegal.
Having only been married once, for a brief two years, I found Anna’s thoughts about her marriage to good-guy Rick to be something to think about (do many married couples think this way?):
The conventions of marriage were what gave her pause. The expected milestones and progressions. Wedding ceremony, home ownership, kids, colleges, empty nest, retirement, death. The step 1, step 2, step 3 of it that, when she he thought of it, bored her to tears. And then she’d laugh at herself when she questioned these things. She was married to a good man. She didn’t want to be alone.
The focus on Michael and his love of reading once he was introduced to it by Anna was the main thing that drew me to this book (it was one of Terrie’s picks for our list of Buddy Reads this year and that’s the main reason I said yes to this choice). So, when I read this passage I could have high-fived Michael because I feel the same way:
…he (Michael) began to use earbuds to listen to his own stuff (music). He could have listened to novels that way too, but he found he didn’t care for the experience. He didn’t read e-books either. To him a book was like a painting that hung in a museum. It was like a piece of art. There was nothing that compared to holding a book in his hands and scanning the words on the page. It made him “see” what he was reading.
To wrap up, I did finish it and don't regret the time I spent reading it, but it's not one of my top books of the year.