Anna Byrne, a prison librarian in Washington, is good at picking books that keep prisoners entertained. But seldom does she succeed in introducing an inmate to literature that makes him think differently about life.
Michael Hudson — the character at the center of George Pelecanos’ new novel “The Man Who Came Uptown” (Mulholland Books, $25.98) — is the exception.
Awaiting trial for driving the getaway car in an armed robbery, Hudson is a young man Byrne has turned into an avid reader. So when he stops coming by for books, she hopes he’s OK.
It turns out he was released because the witness against him refused to testify. Returning to his supportive mother’s home, he discovers the neighborhood is being gentrified, finds a job washing dishes, vows to go straight and spends every idle moment reading.
The witness recanted because a private detective on the case threatened him and his family. The private detective is a devoted family man, but he’s also ethically challenged: On the side, he and a former cop who misses the action rob drug dealers and pimps.
Readers of previous novels by Pelecanos — who also is one of the creators of HBO’s “The Deuce” — might miss the action, too, since the first half of “The Man Who Came Uptown” is mostly descriptions of his characters’ daily lives and their D.C. neighborhoods.
It’s not until more than 130 pages in that readers get the first sign of conflict.
Even then, this remains a quiet, almost pensive book as Hudson continues to read obsessively and struggles with which side of the law to live his life on, as the private detective begins to have qualms about his crimes and as the prison librarian, reconnecting with Hudson on the outside, wrestles with her vaguely dissatisfying marriage and a magnetic attraction to the young reader.
This is a book about love of family, the stresses that can lure almost anyone into crime and how hard it can be for someone like Michael Hudson to make it on the outside. But most of all, it is about the transformative powers of friendship and reading. The story is told in tight, soulful prose by a novelist who has devoted many hours to inmate literacy programs in D.C.