George PELECANOS’ dozen-plus crime novels incorporate a heady brew of soul and rock music, movie-western morals and urban street life. They are also thoughtful examinations of race, ethnicity and manhood -- whether involving a Greek father’s drive for revenge against the black man who murdered his son (“Shame the Devil”) or the cycle of death and despair perpetrated by gullible, fatherless young men (“Soul Circus,” a Los Angeles Times Book Prize winner). Those themes are enlivened by not only Pelecanos’ exquisitely evoked Washington, D.C., locations and characters, but also his own diverse working life -- bartending, selling shoes and stereos, delivering orders for his father’s coffee shop, and more recently, writing and producing for television. “The Turnaround” is, in many ways, the culmination and maturing of these themes and influences, a novel told through the prism of a 1972 incident that had severe consequences some 35 years later.
Alex Pappas is a typical suburban teenager -- interested in girls, music. His anchor to reality is his delivery job at his father’s coffee shop, Pappas and Sons, where "[w]ork was what men did. Not gambling or freeloading or screwing off. Work.” But Alex is also impressionable and eager to hang out with loudmouthed Billy Cachoris, another Greek American, and lawyer’s son Pete Whitten, an arrogant “Protestant white boy among ethnics.”
Emboldened by weed, beer and raging hormones, Alex, Billy and Pete decide one night to drive through Heathrow Heights, an all-black, working-class enclave in suburban Montgomery County, Md. As they cruise by some black youths, Billy yells out a racial epithet and Pete hurls a cherry pie out the window. Hoping for a clean getaway, the three instead find themselves at a dead end, forced to turn around and face the young men they slurred.
In the hands of a lesser writer, those black youths would be one-dimensional victims or thugs, but Pelecanos paints a rich portrait of the three and their segregated community. There are brothers James and Raymond Monroe, whose parents keep them on the straight and narrow and lovingly maintain their modest home. James works as a mechanic at a white-owned service station, a first job that allows him to demonstrate the pride he feels in himself while countering the anger he feels at the slurs his mother endures from bigoted whites. Raymond idolizes his older brother but is equally swayed by the young men on the streets, most notably Charles Baker, a belligerent trash talker whose job seems to be drinking beer in front of a neighborhood market.
Put the six together and it’s a recipe for disaster, evoked with a surrealistic horror. Wisely, Pelecanos does not linger on the violent scene or the others that punctuate the novel. Concerned with broader issues of male responsibility, forgiveness and redemption, “The Turnaround” fast-forwards 35 years to the survivors of that night and how Alex and Raymond find “salvation through work,” whether it’s running the diner Alex inherited from his father or physical therapist Raymond rehabilitating the lives, if not the souls, of returning Iraqi soldiers at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. These scenes, offered with minimum embellishment but maximum impact, reflect a writer at the pinnacle of his craft. The journey of reconciliation that Raymond and James initiate with Alex also reflects the ethical undertones of the acclaimed HBO series “The Wire,” on which Pelecanos served as a writer and producer.
One movie line that came to mind repeatedly while reading this book was from “Unforgiven.” Clint Eastwood’s Bill Munny, a reformed killer, notes: “It’s a hell of a thing, killin’ a man. Take away all he’s got, and all he’s ever gonna have.” That quiet acknowledgment of the fragility of life permeates the latter half of “The Turnaround,” in encounters Raymond has with military officers’ frozen-smile encouragement of maimed Iraq War veterans or Alex coming to terms with derailed dreams.
Saying more would be giving away too much of the plot of one of the finest novels of the year. And although Pelecanos pays homage to his crime-writing roots, uncoiling a lethal subplot involving no-good Charles Baker that spurs a fitting, if bloody, resolution, it is the central questions of how men can have purpose and atone for their sins that makes “The Turnaround” an indelible read. --
Paula L. Woods is a member of the National Book Critics Circle and author of the Charlotte Justice mystery series.