Fans of HBO's "The Wire" will no doubt recognize the type
of characters and narrative style in George Pelecanos' novel The
Turnaround; he was a writer for the critically acclaimed series.
Turnaround opens in Washington DC in 1972. Pelecanos draws on his own background working as a delivery boy for his father's restaurant to write the character of Alex Pappas, a teenager of Greek descent, who works in his father's coffee shop in a working class section of Washington DC.
Alex and two of his friends are driving around, drinking beer and smoking pot, when two of the boys decide to drive through Heathrow Heights, the area of town where the working class black population lives. They throw a pie and a racial slur at three young black men, and physical violence ensues. Thirty-five years later, the repercussions of that incident still reverberate in the lives of all of the participants.
Pelecanos raises important questions about racism, friendship, loyalty, guilt and redemption in this tightly written story that leaves the reader pondering these issues long after the novel has been read.
Parents tell their children to always make good decisions because one mistake in judgment can have life-long consequences. Alex and brothers James and Raymond Monroe (residents of Heathrow Heights, who are among the boys on the receiving end of the racial epithets) are good boys, but they each choose to do something, or in Alex's case not to do something, that changes their lives, and the lives of others, forever.
Alex is a passive character, a young man who works in the family restaurant, eventually taking over after the death of his father. Running the restaurant was not a conscious career choice; it was what his family expected him to do and, thirty years later, he's still doing it. But is it what he wants to do?
Alex delivers leftover restaurant food to families who are living at Fisher House, a home for families of injured vets at Walter Reed Army Hospital. Doing this keeps him close to his beloved son Gus, whom he lost in the Iraq War. Raymond Monroe works as a physical therapist at Walter Reed, helping returning war vets. He cares for his elderly mother, and has a girlfriend with a young son. His own grown son is stationed in Afghanistan.
When Raymond runs into Alex at Fisher House the past collides with the present. Pelecanos hints that things that happened thirty five years ago did not exactly happen as everyone believed. Careful readers will be able to figure out what did happen, and the tension builds as the truth is revealed.
Pelecanos delves into the racial divide in Washington DC in both 1972 and 2007, but it is more than race that separates these people; it is how they were raised. The Monroe brothers grew up in a good family like Alex, with a hardworking father and loving mother. Pelecanos contrasts their lives to that of Charles Baker, a young man from the Heights who was also involved in the incident thirty-five years ago. Things didn't work out well for him; he is still hustling, and he is a hard man, one who feels that he is not getting what is due him, and he intends to remedy that.
The cost of loyalty and sacrifice is examined. When a character lies and makes a sacrifice for another, it changes both of their lives forever. Although the character had a noble motive, that sacrifice has a ripple effect on many lives, and the question remains, would things have turned out differently if the lie wasn't told? How does the sacrifice affect both people?
Publishers Weekly's starred review calls The Turnaround "beautifully written and thought-provoking", and the Chicago Sun-Times review says of Pelecanos, "he tells the truth from deep in the heart". Both reviews are accurate in their assessment of this outstanding book.
In a day when many authors feel compelled to write 600 page books, Pelecanos believes in economy; he tells a completely satisfying, gripping story in less than 300 pages. Perhaps that is the screenwriter in him. The only criticism I have is that at times there seem to be so many characters that it can be a challenge to keep the minor ones straight.
Pelecanos knows Washington DC, like Michael Connelly knows Los Angeles and Dennis Lehane knows Boston. All three of these crime writers use their city as an important character in their novels. The author's use of popular music and other cultural touchstones from 1972 sets the mood and brings back many fond memories for readers who came of age at that time.
But this is not just a novel for those who remember the '70s. As the mother of college-aged sons, I believe this would be a wonderful novel for them to read. The pacing is quick, the characters are realistic, and the writing is crisp; it would keep their attention. It shows them that making good decisions is important, yet it also addresses the possibility of redemption when bad decisions are made.
This review was originally published in September 2008, and has been updated for the April 2009 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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