Originally published in 1992, George Pelecanos’ debut novel, A Firing Offense, is both bold and self-assured. While rooted in the traditions of the private detective genre, Pelecanos dares to push the boundaries of convention and create something more original, more personal. In a way it resembles David Goodis’ first novel, Retreat from Oblivion, in that it wears its ambitions on its sleeve: both were young authors ready to make a statement, full of life and feeling, misery and despondency. Pelecanos’ book, however, doesn’t feel as much like a “flawed first novel” as Goodis’ does. Instead of the sprawling emotional-epic of Retreat from Oblivion, with more than half a dozen “main” characters, A Firing Offense is focused, cohesive, and direct. Pelecanos writes with deft phrases, cutting to the core of what he wants to say. In terms of both style and plotting, Pelecanos proved himself to already be quite mature even at an early stage in his career.
The story concerns Nick Stefanos, an advertising manager for Nutty Nathan’s, a DC-based electronics store specializing in televisions and high-end stereo equipment. Divorced and dissatisfied with his job, he spends his time drinking on the job, getting high in the back-room with his former sales colleagues who continue to work the floor, and pursuing a relationship with a young college girl who thinks of their nights together as “just fun.” When the grandfather of a former stockboy approaches Nick saying the boy is missing, Nick reluctantly agrees to help in the search. He sees himself in the young boy’s shoes—addicted to drugs, loud music, and partying—and wants to help him out. However, the further Nick digs, the more he finds himself ensnared in a East Coast-drug operation, as well as the victim of his former self-punishing addictions.
As a detective, Stefanos is an interesting comparison to Marlowe. Whereas Chandler’s detective attempted to be a “white knight” in a flawed world, I get the impression that Stefanos fell off the horse (or, perhaps “wagon” is more appropriate, considering his addictions) years ago and has never tried to get back on. His decision to help find the missing boy seems less an act of goodwill, or a favor, than it is a way of saving his own lost adolescence. Ironically, the path he takes leads him right back to where he started—slamming beers on (literally) almost every other page, or lighting up one substance or another. Where he and Marlowe are certainly similar is that they both essentially “fail” to enact any change, personal or global. They stay the same, and so does the world. In Pelecanos’ fatalistic vision of life, despondency is everlasting.
Here are some of my favorite quotes and passages from the novel. Pelecanos can be extremely funny at times (particularly in his descriptions of the electronics sales business) or cut to the core of a character in a mere sentence.
“Her baggy pants were frumpy and her sweatshirt featured a circular medallion of vomit centered between her breasts. Four kids and the raising of them had widened her hips and prematurely aged her face. But she had the relaxed beauty of contentment.”
“Louie was surprised to see me in his store. He was a short, barrel-chested guy in his fifties with a wide, flat nose that appeared to have been smashed in by a shovel. As he walked towards me, I noticed that his gut had swelled, his neck had all but disappeared, and there was much more gray salted in his hair. He looked somewhat like a cinderblock with legs.”
“A small man with a heavily veined nose wearing a tuxedo that fit like an afterthought walked into the room.”
“My house resembled a bombed-out Laundromat. The cat had Lee’s underwear on her head and was bumping into furniture. Lee pulled my face down and kissed me on the mouth for a long time.”
Pelecanos pays particular attention to the music his characters listen to. Here is a characteristic passage, explaining the emotional and historical context of Nick’s taste. “This was late in ’79 or early in 1980, the watershed years that saw the debut release of the Pretenders, Graham Parker’s Squeezing Out Sparks, and Elvis Costello’s Get Happy, three of the finest albums ever produced. That I get nostalgic now when I hear ‘You Can’t Be Too Strong’ or ‘New Amsterdam,’ or when I smell cigarette smoke in a bar or feel sweat drip down my back in a hot club, may seem incredible today—especially to shoe who get misty-eyed over Sinatra, or even at the first few chords of ‘Satisfaction’—but I’m talking about my generation.”
“‘Relax, will you?’ McGinnes stopped me with his hand on my chest. ‘I bet you can’t even tell me what you did a week ago today. But when you’re drooling in your wheelchair in forty years, you’ll remember this night—the way the woods smell right now, the sound of the train. That rush you got when you were running across the clearing. This is happening, man, this is what’s important. Everything else is bullshit.’”
“‘I guess you got your information,’ he said.
“‘There’s blood on your shirt,’ he said.
“‘I know,’ I said, pressing down on the accelerator. ‘It isn’t mine.’”