The Constant Reader

George Pelecanos’ ‘The Man Who Came Uptown’— An Homage to the Power of Literature

George Pelecanos' The Man Who Came Uptown

George Pelecanos’ “The Man Who Came Uptown”

George Pelecanos is The Man—in the awesome sense of the word.

The uber-talented crime writer has demonstrated his excellence in some 20 previous best-selling novels as well as the acclaimed HBO series “The Wire,” “Treme” and “The Deuce.”

In the spare, finely written prose and pitch-perfect dialogue of his 263-page new novel, “The Man Who Came Uptown,” the Silver Spring-based author accomplishes at least three major tasks: creating a faithful portrait of the evolving neighborhoods of Washington, D.C.—plus a bit of Prince George’s and Montgomery counties; sympathetically examining the moral dilemmas of three very different protagonists whose lives converge within that backdrop; and making a compelling case for the power of books to enrich and transform.

We are introduced to Michael Hudson, one year into his five-year sentence for his part in a felony gun charge, a crime perpetrated with three extraordinarily low-IQ accomplices. The “quiet tall dude” had spent much of his time inside participating in the facility’s book discussion group and devouring novel after novel its librarian recommended.

The result, Pelecanos writes: Hudson was becoming a “voracious reader. His tastes were evolving. He was learning.” For Michael, reading equals freedom. “When he read a book, he wasn’t in his cage anymore.” And when he is released  unexpectedly for unexplained reasons, he heads back home, “uptown” to his mother’s row house in Columbia Heights. Despite his past behavior, we learn that Michael’s mother and two siblings are solid citizens—and we are given reason to believe that he will proceed to the straight and narrow.

Two days after his discharge, Michael goes to the Petworth library—“He was happy here and could have stayed all day”—and gets a card. Within a week, he takes a job as a dishwasher at the District Line bar-restaurant. He reads on breaks from work and on the porch at home. He finds a prematurely discarded bookcase on the street that he takes home, planning to fill it with selections from a local bookstore.

Phil Ornazian is the man that arranged for Michael’s release—via witness tampering. The private eye compartmentalizes his love for wife and two young sons whom he lives with in Petworth. “When his legit business was not flourishing, when his investigation work dried up, as it tended to do, he improvised,” Pelecanos writes. Not without guilt, Phil justifies his behavior by framing himself as a modern-day Robin Hood. Yet, at the core, he is a hustler who “banks favors” with Michael. “I knew I could use him up the road,” he admits.

Anna Kaplan Byrne, or Miss Anna, is the D.C. Central Detention Facility mobile librarian. She and her husband, 30-something white professionals, are considered “gentrifiers” in their Parkview neighborhood. At work, Anna uses her maiden name, wears “utilitarian and nonprovocative clothing,” no makeup and keeps her hear neatly pinned up. But the job gives her a great deal more satisfaction than her somewhat bland life. We are told that she took the job because of her “deep love of fiction, and (because) she thought it would be cool to promote literature.” Anna spends much of her time off staging her bookmobile—choosing titles for the inmates and their book club; she provides club members with a reader’s guide, complete with questions—“an aid to help them think about what they were reading and how to discuss it.”

It works for Anna and the men. “She hoped to reach someone. Maybe just one” and “When the book lady was on the block, the atmosphere was calm.” The “one” she definitely reached was Michael. When their lives intersect in the streets of D.C., it sets up interesting dilemmas for both of them.

On the book’s front dust jacket, it aptly says that Hudson “has to choose between the man who got him out and the woman who showed him another path.” And that is the essence of this wonderful novel.