Saturday, April 2, 2011
The Turnaround by George Pelecanos
The Turnaround by George Pelecanos, 2008
The Turnaround is an odd book and one that took me a while to warm up to. Although not a huge popular success, George Pelecanos is an author that I've wanted to read for some time. A successful TV writer as well as a novelist, Pelecanos writes gritty stories of urban crime set in Washington D.C. The Turnaround is a lot more than just a crime novel; it's a strange, literary tale of consequences and redemption, of fathers and sons.
The novel begins in 1972 when diner owner's son Alex Pappas and two friends drive their car into a rundown black neighborhood as a prank. A confrontation with three black teenagers (the Monroe brothers and a scarred psychopath named Charles Baker) ensues, and one of the boys is killed and Alex is badly beaten. In 2007, blowback from that fatal day finally begins, as Raymond Monroe reaches out to Alex and Baker begins plotting the downfall of those who ruined his life.
For the first third of the novel, I wasn't really tracking with the rather loose plot and Pelecanos's reserved style wasn't making me too enthusiastic. My patience was definitely rewarded in the end, though. Pelecanos has no intention of spoon-feeding readers and he makes them work for payoff, since most of the novel's early pages are set-up for what's to come.
It's a good thing the payoff is worth it. Pelecanos writes with subtlety and grace of the effect of the shooting on the lives of his four main characters. His themes reveal themselves at a leisurely pace, well suited to Pelecanos's crisp, clear, almost relaxed, style. He's in no hurry to get to the thrills; this is a story of emotions and lasting impressions, not of gunfights and fisticuffs.
Pelecanos has an Elmore Leonard-ish grasp of dialogue and shares Leonard's ability to write compelling, dangerous villains purely from the way they speak. Charles Baker's section of the book is quite possibly the most effective. Baker himself is a magnetic, chilling character that stands in sharp contrast to the more conventional characters of Alex and Raymond:
Time was, he carried a gun regular and cared less than nothing about the consequences. Used to be, back when he was staying with a woman he knew, over there in the high forties, off Nannie Helen Burroughs in Northeast, he'd get up in the morning, drop a pistol into his pocket, head out the door, and go to work. Walk the streets until he came up on people who looked to be weak, older females and men he could punk, then take them off for what they had. He fancied himself a beautiful, strong animal, like one of those cheetahs walking out on the plain. Going to work natural, doing what hunters did.---(page 95)
I do think that Baker's subplot could have been woven more effectively into the main storyline, but it works well on the sidelines, too. His tangle with a dangerous gang of drug dealers provides the novel with a needed shot of violent suspense.
The main dish is the story of the Pappas and Monroe families through two generations, with special emphasis on the Pappas's coffee shop. The coffee shop details add a lot of color and realism to the novel; Pelecanos, whose family owned a diner when he was growing up, writes with authority on grill schedules, changing menus and the importance of choosing the right decor. It's a relatively small touch that hugely contributes to the novel's atmosphere.
At first, I didn't think that Alex and Raymond displayed that much depth, or even personality, but like everything about this novel, it's all about patience. Pelecanos's ear for dialogue is so good that it's almost impossible not to believe his characters. By the end, I was really appreciating his skill in drawing the people of his story, in a way both subtle and compelling.
The Turnaround is, as I said before, a rather strange novel, laid-back, detached, somehow calm. It takes time for the story to get going, only for it to end abruptly. It's a book with a message artfully entwined in the storytelling, but Pelecanos avoids giving the readers huge flashing signs saying "IMPORTANT MOMENT HERE." He shows his characters and their actions with honesty and fairness, and then steps back to let the reader decide.
My main conflict about the book is whether I liked it or whether I liked it liked it (yeah, I know that sounds high-school-ian). It's definitely a book to remember and consider. The rather hauntingly clear passages of forgiveness, redemption and acceptance are not going to fade away soon.
NEXT UP: More delicious George R. R. Martin with A Clash of Kings.