Owning Up: New Fiction

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Release Date: 
February 6, 2024
Mulholland Books
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“With Pelecanos’ longstanding care for the humanity, even among the most desperate and downtrodden, Owning Up is about the ripple effects and long-term ramifications of crime or tragedy or both.”

With 20-plus novels under his belt including Down by the River Where the Dead Men Go, and The Big Blowdown, George Pelecanos’ latest comes with a softer, more literary-sounding title: Owning Up.

It fits.

The mood is reflective. The tone is distant. The style is relaxed. Crimes and police remain at the core, but readers expecting action should take a chill pill and settle into these four intricate and interesting tales. But don’t worry, there are plenty of trademark Pelecanos bits, including plenty of references to choice cars and rock bands. 

The four stories in Opening Up share a sense of musing about the past or pondering the fallout from a dramatic moment. With Pelecanos’ longstanding care for the humanity, even among the most desperate and downtrodden, Owning Up is about the ripple effects and long-term ramifications of crime or tragedy or both. But don’t think you know where these stories are going. The tension level might be mellow, but there are plenty of surprises in store.

In the opening story, “The Amusement Machine,” Pelecanos taps his inside knowledge of film and television production. (Pelecanos has written teleplays for such shows as The Wire and Treme, among a long string of related credits.) The story follows Ira Rubin, who likes to pass bad checks. He works on a landscaping crew, too. His Salvadoran girlfriend, Maria, works at 7-Eleven. Rubin is the son of upper-middle class parents. Rubin knows Jewish people are expected to be “successful and smart.” Rubin doesn’t feel guilty about the bad checks. “In his own mind, Rubin wasn’t a criminal, because criminals hurt people. He was just trying to get along.”

A Black acquaintance, Jerrod Williams, wants to work in movies. Rubin and Jerrod met in a book club, still in their orange jumpsuits. They soon get entangled in a conversation that condenses Percival Everett’s Erasure and R.F. Kuang’s Yellowface into a couple of pages of sharp insights about writers telling stories across racial lines (something Pelecanos does with ease).

Rubin and Jerrod land parts as extras. In a playful bit of irony, Rubin is there on the day they are shooting a courtroom scene so Rubin can witness Jerrod utter his first speaking line as the jury foreman. When easy money and a quick score present itself, Rubin can’t help himself. The setup is for a tragic end, but Pelecanos has other ideas in store.

“The No Knock” is based on a real-life incident that happened to Pelecanos. In the story, writer Joseph Caruso is working on his second cup of morning coffee when a SWAT team shows up. “Caruso turned back to the front door, saw the lines of red laser beams coming from the muzzles of their rifles. He glanced down at his chest and saw multiple red dots, bouncing there. He raised his hands. The men busted through the front door, a ram tearing the door from its frame.”

The police are after Caruso’s son Vince for his involvement in an armed robbery of a marijuana dealer. In a few quick brush strokes, the story looks at the long-term implications of the incident on Caruso’s son, his daughter Gianna, and his relationship with his wife Angie. The story also reminds us that real-life, no-knock raids have gone tragically wrong and that the people inside the police uniforms are humans, too, albeit cogs “in a rotten wheel.”

The opening sentence of “Knickerbocker” could serve as the theme for all of Opening Up. “Memories are unreliable, and so are history books, but truth can be found in both.”

Leah Brown, who is pondering that thought, wants to be a writer. But she’s dubious about her skills. She’s reading a Joyce Carol Oates novel and hopes to emulate its style. Leah knows she’s aiming high. As part of her research, she has decided to embark on a series of interviews with her grandmother, who is in a nursing home. Leah’s grandmother, Maria, unspools stories around the Washington, D.C., riots of 1919. Leah follows leads to another man who survived the deadly roof collapse of the Knickerbocker Theatre in 1922, a night when “nature met physics, and nature won.” The roof collapsed under snow from a rare blizzard, setting in motion a series of events that have survival at their core and help Leah consider the choices she’s making for herself.

The last story, “Opening Up,” also uses an incident from Washington, D.C., history as a backdrop. In this case, it’s the 1977 Hanafi Siege, a two-day standoff and terrorist attack. Pelecanos’ story follows a Greek American teenager named Nikos who dodges a bullet and avoids getting ensnared in a violent crime. Suddenly, Pelecanos skips far ahead to a reflective and much older Nikos, who has become a well-respected newspaper reporter who has even won awards for writing about police corruption. We realize that Pelecanos has been dealing all along with issues of ambition, regret, and the nature of fate.

And one other common theme—storytelling itself. In “The Amusement Machine,” Jerrod Williams ends up preparing for a role in a film. Joseph Caruso is a writer, Leah Brown yearns to be a novelist, and Nikos becomes a reporter. Narratives and backstories drive Owning Up. And, as storytelling goes, Owning Up is brilliant. The stories are layered. They reward re-reading. More than anything, they are wonderfully human.