Wednesday, April 4, 2018

The Choirboys

Only one book really stood out for me in March. That’s not because it was a slow or fallow month for reading, but when the last two books read in February were The Given Day and All the Pieces Fit (Jonathan Abrams’s outstanding oral history of The Wire) and the first book read in March is Joseph Wambaugh’s The Choirboys, let’s just say any other books in the immediate future have some unfairly high expectations to overcome. (I did read one pre-release book that merits attention, but I’ll save that until closer to the release date.)
Joe Wambaugh pretty much invented the realistic cop-in-the-street thriller with The New Centurions and The Blue Knight, but The Choirboys is the Catch-22 of police fiction. Bawdy, crude, terrifying, heartbreaking, surprising, and then some, it’s as close to a perfect book as I can imagine.
Since The Choirboys is the only book I called out this month, let’s dig a little deeper into why. The most obvious thing about any Wambaugh novel are the anecdotes that make up the bulk of the narrative. Here they don’t necessarily seem to be going anywhere, character sketches of weird and frightening things that happen to a dozen cops and how those cops relate to the events, and each other, through that’s called “choir practice,” night-long alcohol- and sex-fueled parties held in MacArthur Park. Wambaugh tells stories few others can, fourteen years an LA cop who gained enough cred with other cops that they still line up to tell him stories he can use in books over forty years later.
What keeps Wambaugh apart from dozens of other cops who fictionalize their stories is his talent for writing, as well as for constructing the books. Two things stick out to me, in addition to the wonderful and nuanced characterizations and laugh-out-loud dialog: structure and foreshadowing.
The structure is something to behold, the work of an author who trusts his audience to remember what he’s told them as much as he trusts his ability to tell them something memorable. The first several chapters deal with the bosses, lieutenants and above, and what ignorant assholes they are. Those who pay attention have likely figured out kinds of people join police departments. Some are there to be cops. They may want to remain on patrol their entire careers or move up to detective, but what they care about is police work.
Then there are the bosses, those who immediately jump into the political aspect of the profession. Wambaugh makes no secret where his sympathies lie, which is why he had to leave the force after the book came out. The bosses here make The Wire’s Ervin Burrell look like Dwight Eisenhower by comparison. Having established these incompetent womanizing nincompoops as those in charge, Wambaugh leaves them alone so he can tell you about those they command, dropping in the bosses’ names and actions as needed, trusting you to remember them. It’s never a problem.
I’m not a fan of foreshadowing, which in contemporary thrillers consists of little more than ending chapters with, “I had no way to know I’d never see her again alive,” or, “The next time I’d see him I’d have a gun pointed at his head.” Wambaugh is much more subtle and effective. Establishing in Chapter 4 that the Wilshire District officers “chose MacArthur Park as the choir practice site because it was in Rampart Station’s territory. They believed that one does not shit in one’s own nest,” he’s free to allow the cops less discretion that they might have received here they might be more easily recognized.
The first reference to what is the point of the whole book is at the beginning of Chapter 6: “Willie Wright was also destined to become a police celebrity. It happened four months before the choir practice killing.” Chapter 7 opens with, “A choir practice was certainly in order and was called for by Francis Tanaguchi… It was three months before the killing in Macarthur Park.” After that the amount of time between the chapter in question and the killing is always less, but not every chapter begins so. Wambaugh has accomplished the true goal of proper foreshadowing: leaving the idea in the back of your mind without telling you any more of what is to happen than he has to.
Maybe when I retire I’ll have time to take apart The Choirboys and give it its due. It’s not the kind of book one unpacks lightly, regardless of how funny it is, and I’ve never read a funnier book. If you haven’t read it, do. If you have, it’s worth another look. And another. And another…

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