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The Cut

An ex-Marine takes center stage in George Pelecanos's new novel of strivers and schemers in Washington, D.C.

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As those archetypes suggest, Pelecanos’ novels have firm moral underpinnings, and he’s not always subtle about it. (Ernest?) There are codes of honest labor and proper action he believes in, and "The Cut" isn’t the first time he’s voiced his disdain for absent dads, dropouts, and hipster disengagement.

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"I’m not gonna sit around and have drinks with people who are, you know, ironic," Spero tells a date. What absolves "The Cut" from didacticism is Spero himself, who for all his nose-to-the-grindstone verities is no moralist – he’s colluding with a drug dealer, after all. "I need the work. I like the money, I like the action. This is what I do," as he puts it. That statement, in all its sawed-off simplicity, reveals how he’s blinkered to his own failings: An inability to commit to a relationship, to deal with the death of his father, to recognize how his behavior affects others.

Since 2008’s "The Turnaround," Pelecanos has been streamlining his sentences, making them as simple as possible without losing their ability to carry moral freight. "The Cut" is the most effective result of that effort – the story moves fast, but never with the sense that it’s being sped through, or that Pelecanos hasn’t considered his words carefully.

Spero’s adopted brother, a high-school teacher, quotes from Westlake and Elmore Leonard, lest you wonder who the book’s influences are. But Pelecanos’ own prose is cleaner still. As Spero preps for his final confrontation, his sentences turn into a kind of two-fisted haiku: "The room had darkened by degree. The day was bleeding off."

Pelecanos seems committed to Spero for a while, and at times in the "The Cut" you can see furniture being arranged for future novels: Spero has two other siblings we’ve yet to meet, and an ex-fling seems poised to return. But Spero’s status as an ex-Marine who’s toured Iraq is the most promising aspect of his character. In breaks from the action, when Spero confides with fellow soldiers, the reader gets a chance to spy on a life that veterans can’t make wholly public.

Pelecanos has long been determined to spotlight the District’s unsung citizens. In the ever-growing number of warriors returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, he’s found a neglected community that can sustain him as a novelist for years to come.

Mark Athitakis reviews books for The Barnes & Noble Book Review.

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