Monday, 7 July 2008


This review was written for Crime Time, and will appear there, and I posted it on my general 'And Over Here' blog, but I liked the novel so much, as you'll see, I thought it a good place to start a crime-specific site....

The Turnaround
George Pelecanos
Orion £12.99 ISBN 9780752875422

I’m not sure how many people are writing about the issue of race in America with anything like the passion or the honesty of George Pelecanos. Richard Price, maybe, and it’s odd that Price’s novels get reviewed as mainstream fiction, while Pelecanos’ remain in the crime ghetto. Even odder, since the two are colleagues on The Wire, arguably the greatest television series ever. The Turnaround, his latest, is barely a crime novel at all, although its core is an incident thirty years in the past, in which three white boys ride through a black neighbourhood yelling insults, and in the ensuing confrontation, one of them is shot dead. There is also the day-to-day crime of the city, Washington DC, the drug dealing and street posturing, which leads to other deaths, but that is not the way Pelecanos is taking this novel.

Instead, this book is a study of what happened to the boys on both sides of the shooting, what kind of men they grew up to be, and what men have to do sometimes to feel they’ve balanced their lives out and made them worthwhile.

Alex Pappas was one of the white boys, and he carries a scarred eye as a result. He has taken over his father’s diner, and his son Johnny is working there, and has ideas for modernizing. James Monroe was sentenced to prison for the shooting; a chance encounter between Alex and James’ brother Raymond brings them into contact again; James is just trying to eek out a living as a mechanic and stay out of trouble.

Not so James’ friend Charles Baker, who damaged Alex’s eye. He’s back from another prison term, looking to set himself up, and make sure he gets his rightful place as a big man on the street. He’s hooked up with two young drug dealers, and wants to take over from their supplier; he’s used to getting what he wants by using force and fear. As usual, Pelecanos is concerned with generations here, the way we raise our children, the choices we give them. Baker is shacked up with the mother of Deon Brown, one of the dealers, and Deon instinctively feels that there is a line Charles is willing to cross without thinking, but he may not be. Raymond works with soldiers crippled in the Iraq war; Alex has lost his other son in that fighting.

The beauty of the book is the way Pelecanos weaves together these strands and makes each character seem real. You understand what Charles Baker feels when he does what he does, and why. It's not pleasant entering the mind of a sociopath, but it's real. You feel the pressures build on many of these people, and you wonder if the diner, as a multi-racial microcosm, is something that really can exist in Washington, or if the VA hospital is the only place where the races can get together, and if they really needed to be wounded to do it.

There is a scene between Alex and his son which conveys the essence of the joy and fear of fatherhood better than anything I can remember reading in some time, and Pelecanos does it by understanding. Similarly, you can guess at where the story, and Alex, are going, but it's still pulled off with the sort of human realism that argues against sepia-toned nostalgia for a world that isn't there.

There are writers in the crime field who write beautifully, whose prose can weave lovely pictures, and who wrap their stories up in it. Dave Robicheaux can ruminate hauntingly about Vietnam or the criminal neglect of New Orleans by the Bush regime, but fine as he is, James Lee Burke doesn't convey a fraction of the emotion that these real people feel. What's happened to Washington has been like a forty-year hurricane, and Pelecanos has been detailing it in his novels. His prose may not sing, but it does hammer out a rough beat that some readers recognise; it’s rock in prose and The Turnaround may be his best book yet. Not just his, but anybody's.

No comments :