Early in the novel The Accidental Hunter, author Nelson George introduces Dante Calabrese as a white man who makes his money by assuaging and comforting wealthy black basketball players. This character “maintained an active working knowledge of current slang. Although he could sound goofy saying ‘off the chain’ or ‘def’ or whatever young black folks were into that particular summer, Dante was self-aware enough to run his awkwardness into self-deprecating humor. Calabrese’s goal was constant — to calm the psyche of young African-American millionaires. ‘Yo, dog, my man is funny’ or words to that effect were what he sought”. This new novel by one of urban culture’s pre-eminent voices makes the reader wonder if the author himself is using this same technique.
Nelson George is without question a wonderful writer, an insightful critic, and a strong and solid voice that demands attention. But in this new novel, hip-hop slang is scattered throughout otherwise standard language and proves to be jarring and attention-getting, rather than being a smooth illustration of the author’s versatility.
The action centers on D Hunter, a silent man with secrets who launched his own security firm. One of D’s main clients operates a party at a bar near Wall Street. As D makes his way to secure the establishment, George writes: “The Twin Towers used to loom over Wall Street as monuments to commerce and government hubris. Their destruction had caused incalculable trauma, an ongoing war, and a recession that still rippled through the city”. Once D is inside the party, George describes the setting as full of an “ersatz formality”. But then, on the next page, he introduces a female character as “a chunky but funky sista”. On the next page, a character “was sipping champagne with two healthy Mary J. Blige dress-alikes who recorded as Sudden Pleasure and were at that moment being sweated by Mayo.” The sweating ends and D retires to his office where he opens his “copy of Chester Hime’s The Quality of Hurt and, as had been his recent ritual, dived into the late writer’s misadventure and caustic worldview. There was something decadent, debauched, and compelling about Himes’s expatriate journey across Europe that made D linger over these passages as if walking through a dark, enticing dream. When D was a child, he’d spent a lot of years curled up with books, escaping where he was and the limitations of his adolescent body.”
Something seems off about George’s slang, like a poorly fretted guitar chord. When he writes that D’s “business was grossing dollars, but net was something else” and “she was just another tenderoni to spit game to” it seems like these phrases were inserted into the text by a computer program, like those jive translator websites, that scanned the text and decided when to drop in a street term. In one scene, a wealthy businessman is flirting with a beautiful young woman and George writes “instinct led the older man to kick game to Luna” and then seven sentences later, no more than two inches down the page, this phrase is used again. A paragraph begins “before D’s conversation with Ivy began, he kicked game to Luna” and the repetition is just as jarring the second time.
None of this is to say that an author cannot be both educated and street-smart, literate and hip. But there is a smoothness that comes with well-written text, a flow that progresses like a good jazz solo. However, when something pops up that breaks that flow, makes you look at the person sitting next to you, and raise your eyebrows in question, and then it’s several minutes before you can get back into the groove of the piece… that’s a mistake, not an instance of the musician’s versatility. The items mentioned above for The Accidental Hunter appear in that same manner.
Much is made in the hip-hop community of authenticity. Part of proving authenticity, of “keeping it real” is displaying a mastery of the diction, the vocabulary, the idiom. George is certainly an expert observer of the community he portrays but dropping in these phrases doesn’t prove he’s from the street so much as beg the question, is this what’s needed to reach a particular audience? In an effort to prove authenticity, the music of the text is broken and discordant.
George seems to settle down about a third of the way through The Accidental Hunter and the text flows more smoothly and the strength of the characters begins to show. D is a hero that is strong and silent, nothing new there, but what could be a stereotype of bland noir novels is changed dramatically when George flips the script and reveals that D is HIV positive. D takes great care to mix his protein shakes, take his prescriptions, and remain vigilant of his body. This twist on the hero archetype is one of the hallmarks of The Accidental Hunter. D cries, he is vulnerable, and he is sick. These human traits are not portrayed often enough in the mystery novel world and George should be applauded for creating such a rich character.
This book is at its best when George breaks the rules that constrain the usual mystery novel. There are engaging, and insightful, discourses on the nature of music videos, vocal performance in songs, inner-city drugs, and since one of the main character is a teen pop princess in the sexy-but-innocent vein of early Britney Spears, a great deal of time is devoted to the nature of manufactured celebrity. In these moments, George shines. His laser-like focus on the intricacies of culture are the hallmarks of his non-fiction and these moments are also the high points of The Accidental Hunter. He weaves in hip-hop and R&B music into the book with the skill of Ace Atkins, a mystery writer who focuses on blues music.
And, to be honest, the plot is darn engaging as well. D is involved in a world of music, money, sex, and lies. George himself eschews many of the usual clichés of mystery novels, but at this point, a cliché is useful The Accidental Hunter is a real page-turner, worth staying up late into the night for.
It is unfortunate that the book is marred by not only the jarring street slang, but a few items that can only be described as editorial mistakes. In one scene, the pop princess is preparing to film a video early one morning and an assistant tells her “five minutes to sunrise” while on the next page, at almost the same eye level as that quote, D says “fifteen minutes to sunrise. Another character in the novel is an R&B crooner named Night. D and the pop princess hide out at his beach house and she later asks “weren’t you looking forward to another night at Night’s?” While there isn’t anything technically wrong about the night at Night’s phrase, it rings false in the ear. George elects not to put a period after D’s initial throughout the text, which causes some odd moments. At one point, when mentioning something in the past perfect tense, George abbreviates it so the text appears as “D’d met her one night”. In one pivotal scene, Ivy Greenwich and D are discussing an old R&B singer named Adrian Dukes. The biography of Dukes is crucial to the novel and Ivy is telling D a story. Ivy says “She placed her guilt for cheating on D with me. All that boy has ever known is that I was a thieving Jew trying to steal his father’s legacy. Was that right, D?” At no other point in the conversation is Adrian Dukes referred to as an initial. The context of this passage makes it clear that Ivy is talking about Dukes in this sentence, but the sudden usage of the initial, combined with the fact that it just so happens to be the main character’s same initial, which is used two sentences later makes this entire scene stop while the reader goes back to try and ascertain exactly which D is being described here.
There are other plot mistakes, such as when a band of kidnappers try to surprise their quarry by riding a herd of motorcycles that can be heard all over town. The rumble of the motorcycles is a nice motif throughout the book, a foreshadowing of trouble, and an introduction of fear, like the theme to Jaws. Characters stop what they are doing, perk their ears up to the wind, and cower at the sound of far off motorcycles. So it’s a good image for most of the book, but for a sneak-attack kidnapping? And a major mistake is that throughout the book, D is shown taking great care with his sexual relations. The book details how D uses two condoms and lubricants in an effort to protect his partners, and even then, he feels badly about the risk they are taking. But towards the end of the novel, D hooks up with a character and when he says he doesn’t have any protection, now suddenly, it’s just “we can be creative” and that’s all. It seems out of character for D, who is normally so careful and protective to suddenly be so flippant. Maybe the intent is to show him overcome with passion, but it seems odd to dwell on his sexual behavior in such detail in part of the book and then just brush it aside in another part of the book.
The miscues in Nelson George’s The Accidental Hunter are a real shame because the book is engaging. Once George settles down and doesn’t seem so concerned with dropping in slang, the pace of the novel and the story really flow quite well. George’s destruction of some of the mystery genre’s most standard stereotypes is to be applauded. And his willingness to inject harsh social issues into an entertaining novel is a strong point of his work. In the world of social critic Nelson George, even the villain reads Toni Morrison on the way to kidnap the world’s reigning pop princess. And a book that includes such ambitious character traits as that should be applauded, if only the wrong notes didn’t cause the audience to think about quieting their hands.