WASHINGTON, D.C. FELT familiar and incomprehensible at the same time when I moved here in the early 1990s–even after moving often during the previous 15 years, to Boston, New York, Paris and finally Brussels. And I had grown up in nearby Delaware.
While living in one D.C. neighborhood, the others remained mysterious. Even within Northwest, I misidentified my location as Forest Hills, only to be scolded by a friend who explained that my house was in “Chevy Chase, D.C.” For entire dinner parties, “inside the Beltway” discussions were so inside-the-inside that the words sounded like a foreign language and the content was incomprehensible.
When I discovered Edward P. Jones’s “Lost in the City,” I devoured the stories for their street scenes and for the characters he placed there: Jones’s stories gave me the sense of these places that I’d been missing. Most took place in Northeast neighborhoods, which I could see on a map were not far away from me. But every city has its own psychological sense of distance: I had thought nothing of living on the Upper West Side of Manhattan and working in Brooklyn. In D.C., I was still learning that some addresses were a lifetime away from each other.
More than a decade after my move, “D.C. Noir” appeared, followed quickly by “D.C. Noir 2,” both containing stories by well-known local writers such as George Pelecanos, Ward Just, Laura Lippman and of course Edward P. Jones. Each story is identified by the D.C. location where it takes place. From George Pelecanos in the first “D.C. Noir” introduction, on D.C.:
There are easier places to live but few as interesting. Nowhere in this country is the race, class and culture divide more obvious than it is in Washington D.C. This American experiment is dissected and discussed, in-your-face style, every day…
No taxation without representation except for the citizens of the nation’s capital…bitterness on the part of Washingtonians toward the federal government…So don’t expect all the locals to get misty-eyed over monuments, inauguration balls…
Aha, I thought, armed with new insight as to why when friends or family call from afar and request the inside dope on federal Washington, I often don’t know or care about the issue. And what I care about — for example, Walmart and raising the minimum wage–is too local for outsiders.
Pelecanos on why “crime/noir” fiction:
It involves a high degree of conflict…also allows us to explore social issues and the strengths and frailties of humanity that are part of our everyday lives here.
In the first “D.C. Noir,” Pelecanos’s “The Confidential Informant” concerns a problem for D.C. police in combating crime: Witnesses in some communities change stories or disappear to protect their own. Rereading his story recently made me think about the progress made since the book’s publication in 2006. In the mid-1990s, the D.C. crime rate started to fall from the 1991 peak of 479 murders to the 2012 figure of 92, the lowest number since 1963. Although credit goes to the slowing of the crack epidemic and to gentrification, it also goes to current Police Chief Cathy Lanier, appointed in 2007 under Adrian Fenty and kept on in Vincent Gray’s administration. Local crime is of great interest to most D.C. residents.
“A.R.M. and the Woman,” which takes place in Chevy Chase, is written by Laura Lippman, considered part of the local journalism community though she lives in Baltimore. In “A.R.M.,” a woman whose marriage has ended doesn’t have enough money to remain in her house. By the time I read the story, I had encountered several women in unhappy marriages who couldn’t afford to stay in the city on their own but didn’t want to move their kids from the good D.C. schools–an issue of expensive cities. Sometimes even these nice women fantasized about “something happening” to their husband as it does in Lippman’s story.
“D.C. Noir 2: The Classics” includes a piece by Paul Laurence Dunbar written in 1900, as well as writing from Langston Hughes and Richard Wright, both the latter about African American D.C. before 1950. Another book, “River Cross My Heart” tells a story of an African American living in 1920s Georgetown. I was acquainted with the author, Breena Clarke, from my husband’s office at TIme magazine, where she also worked, so besides loving the book’s evocation of this D.C. history, I was thrilled when it was selected by the Oprah Book Club.
Because Politics and Prose is the closest store to our house offering gift possibilities, one year my older son asked a clerk there for help choosing books his mother might like and was directed to “The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears” by Dinaw Mengestu. This movingly fascinating if sad story of the city’s immigrants pulled aside the curtain on another D.C. population unfamiliar to me.
For physical Washington, the Camel Club books by local author David Baldacci, urged on me by my younger son’s friends, introduced me to the islands of D.C. The club meets secretly on Roosevelt Island, which I then located on a map. Days later walking with a friend, we passed Sycamore Island near Cabin John, Md., accessible only by membership in a private “community organization,” in fact a club, founded in the 1880s, known to draw its membership from the CIA.
Reading these books and others began giving me the feeling I’d longed for after so many moves: a better connection to a place. Fiction even made some of inside-the-inside conversations more intriguing. Which brings me to the last and most recently published book on my list, “This Town” by Mark Leibovich. Two friends who grew up in D.C. with parents involved in journalism and politics were reading it on our recent bike trip from Pittsburgh to Cumberland, Md. While I was amused to hear about the book and about local characters through my friends’ eyes, I still have my limits. “This Town” is still one step too far inside the Beltway for me–maybe after another decade, I’ll be ready.