Dear reader, life is too short for crap books.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

The Past Isn't Over, It's Not Even Past: The Turnaround by George Pelecanos

The Turnaround by George Pelecanos

I suppose it's probably for the best that George Pelecanos took a break for most of the fourth season of The Wire to work on his previous novel, The Night Gardener. Heartbreaking as that season of television was, if Pelecanos had been there, it would have been emotional carnage.

This isn't to say that he was the best writer on that show (in that crowd, it's nearly impossible to pick), but in all of Pelecanos's writing, he demonstrates an almost preternatural ability to turn his characters inside out, sparing the reader nothing. It's not just the characterization, though. Pelecanos's characters exist in a moral universe that's guided by a strong sense of what it means to be good, what it means to have done wrong, and what it means to live with choices and mistakes made.

The moral crisis at the heart of The Turnaround begins on a summer night in 1972 when three white teenagers, buzzed on beer and weed, goad one another into driving through a black D.C. neighborhood. One boy shouts a racial slur, and another throws a fruit pie out the window. Unfamiliar with the neighborhood, they drive down a dead end street, where they are confronted by three black teenagers from the neighborhood.

One of the white boys runs away, another is given a beating that disfigures his face, and the third is shot in the back and killed. Two of the black teenagers are sentenced to prison terms. No one gets out unscathed.

The book moves forward 35 years, and from here, focuses mainly on two of the men involved in the incident. All charges were dropped against Raymond Monroe, a hot-headed youth who'd begun running with a bad crowd. After that night, Monroe leaves his old ways behind, and goes on to become a physical therapist at the Walter Reed Hospital. His only child is serving in Afghanistan, and helping veteran amputees learn to use their artificial limbs allows him to feel he's doing something to help, even if it doesn't help to soothe his fears for his son.

The other man is Alex Pappas, the boy who was beaten, the boy who sat in the back of the car and did nothing. His scarred face and ruined eye are the visible penance for his inaction, but Pappas lives most of his life as though he's still being punished for what happened all those years ago. He, too, had a son serve in the Middle East, but now that son is dead.

Pelecanos manages to bring the surviving characters together in a way that isn't contrived -- this isn't the sort of thing that can be resolved with a talk. Some characters are seeking oblivion and escape from the past, others want payback, and the resolution that Pappas and Monroe are looking for doesn't come easily.

Unlike Pelecanos's other books, The Turnaround isn't a crime novel in any traditional sense of the genre. There is crime, and a worthy villain, but more than anything else, the book is about the hard-won redemption of ruined lives. How things are eventually resolved is somewhat predictable, but the route there is anything but.


Linkmeister said...

Mystic River, DC version?

Nathan said...

Dammit, Mary, your reviews are usually just ahead of the curve enough so I can place my library holds before the rest of the schlumps out there. But, alas, the upper hudson valley library system has 24 copies, all checked out.

To your credit, you got me into Oscar Wao a good week before it won the pulitzer, beating a mad hold rush.

mary_m said...

Hey, it came out less than a month ago! I guess those Hudson Valley library users are a savvy bunch. I got my hold on this one right after the PW review came out, so I scored a pretty good spot on the list.

And as for the book being similar to Mystic River, I'd say yes and no. Both deal with the lifelong consequences of childhood trauma, but Lehane's book takes a far, far bleaker worldview.