The New Centurions (novel)
1st edition cover
|Publisher||Little, Brown and Company|
|January 30, 1971|
|Media type||Print (Hardcover)|
The New Centurions, written by Joseph Wambaugh, is a 1971 novel depicting the stresses of police work in Los Angeles, California in the early 1960s. The author wrote the novel, his first, while a working member of the Los Angeles Police Department. The novel became a film starring George C. Scott and Stacy Keach.
The novel is basically without plot, instead episodically depicting the psychological changes in three LAPD officers caused by the stresses of police work, and particularly police work in minority communities of Los Angeles. The three officers—Serge Duran, Gus Plebesly, and Roy Fehler—are classmates at the police academy in the summer of 1960, and the novel examines their lives each August of succeeding years, culminating in their on-the-job reunion during the Watts riots of August 1965.
The New Centurions is likely the most autobiographical of Wambaugh's novels and is a straightforward narration of events with little use of flashback. Each chapter is written third-person from the point of view of one of the three protagonists, who realistically have no contact with each other once they graduate from the academy but whose paths are at once both parallel and converging. Like Wambaugh, his protagonists move from a few years of uniformed patrol in minority districts to plain clothes assignments in juvenile and vice work, experiences which so impacted Wambaugh that they appear repeatedly in all his fiction.
The significance of this structure is that while Wambaugh began his career writing entirely about police officers, he experimented with method until in his fourth book, The Choirboys, he "found his voice", using satirical black humor in a style he openly attributed to the influence of Joseph Heller but which is entirely absent in The New Centurions, The Blue Knight (first-person fiction), and The Onion Field (non-fiction in a novelistic style).
Many of the characters of The New Centurions are the first appearances of police officer character types repeatedly found in Wambaugh's LAPD novels. The atavistic beat officers Andy Kilvinsky and Whitey Duncan can be seen again in Bumper Morgan (The Blue Knight), Spermwhale Whalen (The Choirboys), and Rumpled Ronald (The Delta Star). Serge Duran is Detective Sergeant Mario Villalobos (The Delta Star) as a rookie, and Gus Plebesley working Wilshire Vice is indistinguishable from Harold Bloomguard (The Choirboys) working Wilshire Vice. The psychologically tortured Roy Fehler has much in common with Baxter Slate (The Choirboys), Sgt. A.M. Valnikov (The Black Marble), and Sgt. Al Mackey (The Glitter Dome).
A character type not portrayed in The New Centurions is the brutal street cop. Known in the LAPD vernacular as a "black-glove cop" and epitomized by Roscoe Rules in The Choirboys and The Bad Czech of The Delta Star, Wambaugh only hints at the type in several vignettes. Wambaugh's apparent reluctance to portray police brutality in his first work is balanced however by his frankness in depicting adultery, alcoholism, racism and suicide as rampant in the ranks of the LAPD. Police officer suicide in particular is a theme Wambaugh explores in nearly all of his books.
A major theme explored throughout the book is what traits characterize a veteran officer, and how a rookie acquires them. Wambaugh consistently compares the attitudes of the new officers (one is not considered a veteran in the LAPD until one's fifth anniversary on the job) to those of the older entrenched men.
Like Wambaugh, Duran came to the LAPD from the U.S. Marines, joining in 1954 right out of high school. Although Duran is a Chicano, he has the fair features and tall stature of an Anglo (unlike the Erik Estrada portrayal in the film version) and speaks little Spanish. His first assignment is uniformed patrol in Hollenbeck Division in East LA, and he resentfully notices that all the Chicanos in his class have been sent there.
Duran is soon forced to confront his ethnicity, which he has hidden since leaving Chino to join the Marines. At first he easily rationalizes to himself why he does not want to be considered Hispanic, but is increasingly uncomfortable with his self-denial. Then, working Hollywood Division for a few months in 1962 before returning to Hollenbeck, Duran begins to see East LA in a new light, as a comfortable place where people are actually what they seem to be. Teamed with an older but passive and unambitious officer after his return, Duran is pleasantly surprised to find that his patrol partner recommended him for a detective position investigating felonies in the Chicano division.
Duran settles into a routine in Hollenbeck, goes through some pleasant but meaningless personal relationships, and becomes a Juvenile detective to avoid a transfer and to improve his resumé. Wambaugh places much of the narrative around Duran in Mexican restaurants, and in his favorite diner Duran falls in love with the young Mexican waitress Mariana Paloma, who finally maneuvers him into coming to grips with his ethnicity.
Of the three central characters, Duran is the least complex and well-delineated, possibly reflecting Wambaugh's difficulty in conveying ethnicity, but Duran also has the most vivid episodes in the novel's climax. Despite the fact that Duran is Chicano, he appears to be the character Wambaugh chose to re-enact events Wambaugh himself experienced.
Plebesly is solidly middle class and suburban in upbringing, from the Los Angeles suburb of Azusa. He married young and at 22 already has two children. He worked in a bank before joining the LAPD, has a few college credits earned, but sought a job with higher status and better pay. Short and slim, Plebesly just passed the height and weight minimums required of applicants, but is a natural athlete and an endurance runner.
His first assignment tests his hidden fear that he is a coward. Although he performed well in both physical training and defensive tactics at the academy, Plebesly is doubtful of his own ability to defeat an opponent in a physical confrontation. His assignment to University Division (now LAPD's "Southwest Area") intensifies his fears. University is over 90% black in population and a high-crime area, both unfamiliar to Plebesly's experience.
Plebesly is fortunate in that his first partner is the thoughtful but pragmatic veteran Andy Kilvinsky. Unlike in the film version, which focused on the role as a starring vehicle for George C. Scott, Kilvinsky's appearance in the novel is brief but crucial. He is close to retirement (which he refers to as "pulling the pin") and takes Plebesly under his wing to make into an extension of himself. Kilvinsky gives Plebesly a cram course in being a good cop, overcoming his self-doubts, and trusting his innate common sense. He warns Plebesly that the intensity of crime in University makes a year there the equivalent of ten years in any other. Always offering insights from his personal philosophy, it is Kilvinsky who likens the role of LAPD cops to that of centurions in the early decline of the Roman Empire. But Kilvinsky is as much a warning sign as a mentor, because his only life is his work, long-divorced not just from his wife but his family as well.
After just two years Plebesly has become a veteran, breaking in new rookies using the words and examples of Kilvinsky, now retired and living alone in Oregon. University Division has become more tense and dangerous than ever and the center of Black Muslim challenges to white authority. Plebesly has observed decent young officers like Rantlee becoming racist, appalled at the changes in themselves but helpless to stop it. But Plebesly is absorbing what he sees and hears, gaining understanding rather than becoming what he beholds.
He knows he married at far too young an age and now feels trapped in his marriage. The frequency of divorce among his peers bothers him, however, and when he finally does take an interest in another woman, his female partner in Juvenile Division, fate intervenes in the form of Kilvinsky's suicide—which Plebesly doesn't learn about firsthand, but only through probate of his old partner's will.
Fehler, also married, dropped out of college out of boredom. Fehler had wandered into an academic major of criminology but had grown tired of college studies and joined the LAPD on the pretext of gaining several years' firsthand experience about crime and criminals. With little interest in the semi-military aspects of the police environment, firearms, or physical training, Fehler from the outset views himself as intellectually superior to his fellow cadets and later the officers he works with.
Assigned to Newton Division, the poorest all-black division in the department, Fehler like Plebesly is also paired with a veteran officer nearing retirement, but the two experiences seemingly could not be more unalike. Whitey Duncan is an alcoholic, and as Fehler soon discovers, drinks on the job from bottles concealed inside police callboxes. Yet he exhibits an unpretentious street wisdom that Fehler in his conceit and scorn for Whitey misses entirely. Roy, who has considered himself reasonable and thoughtful in all respects that his peers are not, develops a negative attitude toward the department's bureaucratic indifference that rivals that of any twenty-year veteran.
Fehler experiences a mutual but mild dislike with all his partners, who vary from night to night, and his marriage quickly disintegrates after the birth of his daughter Becky, who becomes the one brightness in an otherwise bleak existence. After two years in Newton he seemingly escapes to work Vice in downtown Central Division but it is only a reprieve. He is sent to Seventy-Seventh Division (Watts), considered a virtual war zone in the LAPD, and in Fehler's mind, ten times as bad as Newton. The transfer only deepens his cynicism and resentment. Distracted by a psychologically traumatic call concerning an abused infant, Fehler and his partner interrupt the robbery of a liquor store in the immediate aftermath of the call. Fehler is careless and is shot in the stomach by a blast from a sawed-off shotgun.
He survives, but his long, painful recovery is as traumatizing as the injury. The wound is slow to heal, Fehler endures a colostomy, and he is forced to live with his parents, where his job and injury are scorned and ridiculed. Worst of all, when he finally returns to full duty, it is back to patrol in Seventy-Seventh. Deluding himself that he had avoided a dependency on drugs, Fehler begins drinking, hiding bottles in both the trunk of his car and in callboxes. Just twenty-six years of age, Roy Fehler has devolved into Whitey Duncan. Returning to college studies has become all but forgotten, and he reaches bottom when he is suspended for sixty days without pay for drinking on duty.
Fehler's redemption begins when he takes a burglary report from a young black dental technician, Laura Hunt, and becomes infatuated with her. They fall in love and he moves in with her during his suspension, where she "dries him out". Rid of his arrogance and conceit, Roy believes he is finally "finding peace" with himself.
The Watts riots
Wambaugh tightly controls his narrative of the Watts riots, which provides the backdrop for the novel's 6th and final part, although it was an historical disaster of epic scale which engulfed Wambaugh personally. He never succumbs to the temptation of trying to describe the "big picture;" nevertheless he gives a harrowing account from three perspectives of the horror that chaos and fear produce in the human psyche. At the end, however, it is not violence on a large scale that has the most impact on the lives of the three officers, but an unexpected act of personal violence small-scale by comparison.
In the first chapter, the longest, the riot is revealed through the anxiety of Serge Duran, being held over at Hollenbeck waiting to be thrown into it, and when he finally is, through the nervous conversations of three officers, strangers to each other, thrown together in a radio car having no idea where they are or what they should be doing. Leaderless, they finally fall in with a small collection of officers gathered by a sergeant and put down the looting in just one store on one block. They are stunned to learn that the show of authority is enough to "quell" the vast majority of the "rioters", who turn out to be just residents of the local neighborhood, many small children. On his way home that night Duran stops to eat, and almost on a whim orders menudo, which has always represented for him the Chicano background he has been trying to escape, and finally considers himself Hispanic.
In the second chapter, the shortest, Gus Plebesly and his temporary partners arrive at the same decision. Plebesly's fears have come to a head in the back seat of the police car they're in. But suddenly they confront a crowd of arsonists trying to set fire to a grocery, and in the ensuing foot chase, Plebesly runs down not just one but three rioters, arresting them one at a time until he confronts the last, who is much larger and more muscular, but whom he subdues with a convincing force of will. Afterwards Plebesly is still as afraid and sometimes almost panic-stricken as before, but he knows now he can endure, and is satisfied with the discovery.
For Roy Fehler, in the third and next-to-last chapter, he does little but observe. For half the chapter he is pinned down behind a fire engine by a sniper, protecting his stomach from further injury and reflecting that even in the chaos of south central Los Angeles, he has found peace in his life from being with Laura. Again a lone sergeant galvanizes the disorganized police remnants into action, but the night ends with an ugly incident. Roy's crew gets into a vehicle pursuit of looters, are almost machine-gunned by a National Guard roadblock, and the looters escape when their car crashes. One of Roy's temporary partners shoots up the recovered car in his frustration, then sets it afire. Soon after Roy goes home to Laura and rejects a drink she offers him, and also her apology to him about the riot (because she is black). Roy soaks in a hot bath, and finally relaxed, asks Laura to marry him.
In 1972 The New Centurions was adapted as a feature film released by Columbia Pictures, starring George C. Scott as Andy Kilvinsky and Stacy Keach as Roy Fehler. Columbia paid Wambaugh a bonus of $1,250.00 for each week the novel remained on the New York Times Best Seller list. Ultimately the novel, which first appeared on the list on February 21, 1971, remained on it for 32 weeks.
- "The New Centurions (1972)". Production notes. Turner Classic Movies. Retrieved 27 September 2009.
- New York Times best Seller List of September 26, 1971