George Pelecanos’ The Man Who Came Uptown is a book partly about books. Its protagonist, Michael Hudson, has come out of jail with a love of books and a hunger to get his life straight. His goals are threatened by the man who got him out, PI Phil Orzanian, who threatens to put him back in if he doesn’t help him in his sideline of robbing pimps and drug dealers. While Michael struggles to escape the situation, we also see how he escapes his day to day through reading. We caught up to the author of our Pick Of the Month to talk about his book and books in general.
MysteryPeople Scott: One of the reasons why this is going to end up as one of my favorite books of the year is that it looks at the power of books. What did you want to explore about that?
George Pelecanos: I’ve been doing reading programs and leading book club discussions in prisons and jails for many years. I’ve seen first-hand how books can broaden minds and make people happy. Beyond that, this one was personal for me. Without going into unseemly detail, I was pretty rudderless when I was young and I saw trouble. Then a teacher turned me on to novels. It changed the direction of my life.
MPS: Some of my favorite moments is how Michael interacts with a certain title he’s reading. How did you approach those characters moments?
GP: The novels that Michael reads force him to look at his life, and how he leads it, differently. Willy Vlautin’s Northline, for example, teaches him the importance of small kindnesses. It causes him to forgive someone at a crucial moment in the book. The implication is that reading can make you a better person because it takes you into the minds of people you might otherwise never have met. “Try to understand each other” is the important Steinbeck quote in the book. Obviously those words impact Michael Hudson.
MPS: Phil Orzanian is an interesting antagonist. He has an Elmore Leonard quality to him. While I want Michael to get out from under him, he doesn’t come off as a villain and more like a guy who has been playing with fire for too long. Has there a certain idea you had in mind when constructing him?
GP: At the end of the chapters where Ornazian and Thaddeus Ward commit crimes, their internal monologue is always about the anticipation of seeing their spouses or children. There are few pure villains in my books or in my screen work. People do bad things but they often rationalize the reasons for their behavior. Ornazian deeply loves his wife and kids, and he also robs drug dealers and pimps. Both sides of him exist at once.
MPS: True Grit is one of the books Michael escapes into and you’ve mentioned it in interviews as a favorite. What makes it such a great book to you?
GP: The story is fantastic, a rousing adventure. The prose shines. The narrator is an optimist but the feelings invoked are of tragedy. It successfully tackles the subject of the passage of time, which is the big mystery we all grapple with. But mostly it’s the voice of Mattie Ross. Charles Portis completely inhabits her. I’ve read the book many times and it’s always a thrilling experience.
MPS: What were some of the books that had an influence on you as a writer?
GP: Many are mentioned in this book. I continue to be an Elmore Leonard fan and marvel at what he left us. Steinbeck, with his humanity, is still a favorite. James Salter’s Light Years left a big impression on me. The best book I read this year was The Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner. It had ambition and she achieved it. By influential, I don’t mean to claim that I can write like any of these people. But I can have aspirations. My goal, always, is to be a better writer.
MPS: I have to ask on behalf of my customers and myself if Spero Lucas will be coming back in a new book down the road?
GP: I’d like to revisit the character. If he knocks on that door in my head, I’ll answer it.