Friday, August 25, 2006

White writers, black characters

Otto Penzler, owner of the Mysterious Bookshop in Manhattan and the series editor of the annual Best American Mystery Stories, recently wrote an interesting column in the New York Sun.

It's largely a review of George Pelecanos' novels, especially the new one, but his launching point is about black characters in crime fiction. Pelecanos writes them very well, Penzler says, but then admits:
I wouldn't really know. I'm white, live in a white neighborhood, and work in the largely white profession of publishing. But I believe his characters, their dialogue, and their points of view.
I know what he means. Then comes Penzler's money paragraph:
Years ago, I asked Elmore Leonard how he was able to replicate the speech of the low-life Hispanic, black, and white street thugs and drug dealers so perfectly. He responded, "How do you know I do? Do you know a lot of guys like that?" "No, of course not," I said. "Well," he said, "neither do I. I make it up."

As I wrote in a post on The Wire and two of its writers, Pelecanos and Richard Price, it feels like these guys get it right. Still, you have to wonder.

Price readily admitted that "clocker," the name for a certain kind of drug dealer from which his novel takes its name, was so obscure that his police friends didn't recognize it. So how would we know if it was really in use, had never caught on, or had long been retired?

And I have my suspicions about the authenticity of the dealers' dialogue in The Wire. For example, when they want to know if they're understood, they ask, "You feel me?" Now, I hear white middle-class, middle-age guys use that phrase, only partly aware of how lame they sound, and that makes me suspect that the street dealers have moved on to another phrase.

Then again, perhaps it's one of those rare bits of slang which is just so effective that it will endure for years--like, "cool"--and remain in use by gangbangers even though your grandmother says it, too.

You feel me?

--Marshal Zeringue