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What to Read, Listen to, and Watch to Get to Know DC

Veep is set here, but filmed almost entirely in Maryland. Photograph by Lacey Terrell courtesy HBO.

Whom and What to Read

You can’t dodge this one: Henry Adams’s 1880 novel, Democracy, is still the best guide to how the single-minded pursuit of power makes Washington different—socially, too—from other cities. Among contemporary DC novelists, the most entertainingly sophisticated is Thomas Mallon, whose politically minded fiction ranges from gay love in homophobic, McCarthyite 1950s Washington (Fellow Travelers) to dramatizing Ronald Reagan’s crisis-futzed second term (Finale).

Pulitzer winner Edward P. Jones is the reigning master of stories about African-American life in the area (Lost in the City, All Aunt Hagar’s Children). The “DC Quartet” is probably the best place to start with crime novelist George Pelecanos, Washington’s own James Ellroy. If you’re a budding writer yourself, the local legend you’ll soon be awed by is Richard Peabody, who’s been publishing the literary journal Gargoyle since 1976. He also regularly brings out hefty anthologies of fiction by Washington-area women.

The District version of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows—that is, the final volume of Robert A. Caro’s LBJ biography—isn’t due anytime soon. So take advantage of that hiatus to memorize the previous four. In the meantime, bask in the wit of 28-year-old Alexandra Petri, the Washington Post’s smartest hire in years.

What to Listen To

You need to know about Fugazi, and you need to know about go-go. Fugazi was—or maybe is, nobody’s sure—the band led by former Minor Threat frontman Ian MacKaye, cofounder of Dischord Records and the Svengali (not to mention Savonarola) of DC’s hardcore punk scene. Repeater is a good intro.

Still pulsing away more than four decades after founding father Chuck Brown invented it—in hybrids from bounce beat to rapper Wale—go-go is Washington’s distinctive brand of funk music, which briefly looked as if it was going nationwide with Trouble Funk’s Drop the Bomb way back in 1982. Go-go is to DC what brass bands are to New Orleans.

Oh, and Duke Ellington was born here. He would have been a genius no matter what, but we feel proud anyway.

What to Watch

Driven by the insight that DC staffers have Potomac fever in ways their bosses are obliged to mask, Veep is the shrewdest current TV show set here. As for Hollywood classics, forget Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Even if Frank Capra inspired you to come to the capital, that’s where his reliability as a sherpa ends. Advise & Consent and Seven Days in May are the brainy oldies.

Watergate dramas are a separate category. All the President’s Men craftily appealed to the heartland by leaving ideology out, but that’s why it’s likely to frustrate you now. Try Kirsten Dunst in the wonderful comedy Dick—which even mocks Woodward and Bernstein—or the sardonic 1977 miniseries Washington: Behind Closed Doors, featuring Jason Robards as shifty President Richard “Monckton” and probably the best look at Beltway intrigue ever filmed.

Your other must is the only famous Washington-set movie that supposedly isn’t about politics at all: Beltwayites know The Exorcist is secretly the story of all the innocents who have ever come here to work in the mistaken belief that Satan won’t feel tempted to rearrange their mental furniture. You’ve been warned.

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Tom Carson

Tom Carson is a freelance culture critic and the author, most recently, of the novel “Daisy Buchanan’s Daughter.”