- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 10, 2008

THE TURNAROUND

By George Pelecanos

Little, Brown, $24.99, 294 pages

REVIEWED BY JOHN GREENYA

In 1972, four years after the riots left permanent scars on commercial areas, neighborhoods, and peoples’ psyches in Washington, there was an “incident” in a normally quiet Maryland enclave off Connecticut Avenue just north of the Beltway. One summer night, three beered-up white teenagers made the mistake of their lives, for which one of them paid with his. The boys decided to drive through Ken-Gar, the small, historic black community located between Kensington and Garrett Park, toss firecrackers at a group of black youths standing on a corner, and then speed off to the west and safety, laughing all the way. Unbeknownst to them, the way into Ken-Gar is also the only way out. When the driver discovered his mistake and whipped the car around, it was blocked by the same youths they’d just harassed.

One of the white boys booked on foot. The other two left the car and tried, unsuccessfully, to reason their way out. One was severely beaten and the other was shot fatally. Eighteen months later, a jury sent the self-confessed shooter and the beater to jail, and acquitted the shooter’s younger brother. The boy who’d been beaten, survived, but was badly marked, inside and out, for life.

The boy who ran away made out best.

Thirty-five years later, George Pelecanos, the premier chronicler of Washington’s mean streets (and alleys, and parks, and malls, and, in his last novel, victory gardens) decided to use that crime as the basis for his next novel, which became “The Turnaround.” I didn’t find the book, for reasons I’ll get to later, to be vintage Pelecanos, nonetheless it is very good. Far more of a character study than a violent thriller, the book continues in the direction this fiercely talented author has been heading for several years. As he has said,

“I like conflict in any kind of popular art. There is no greater conflict than life versus death, so there it is. I’m not that interested in the crime aspect of my books. I am interested in the characters.”

Mr. Pelecanos also likes — no, loves — flashback, back stories and the relatively recent history of Washington, D.C., and its less-than-affluent suburbs to the north. Having grown up here, and having worked in retail stores as well as his Greek immigrant father’s lunch counter downtown, his eye and ear for those on the bottom rungs of the ladder are pitch perfect. He has their milieu down cold — what they wear, eat, smoke, drive and, especially, what they listen to. But even more important, and harder to do, he gets inside their heads to reveal their fears and frustrations, their muted hopes and downsized dreams.

In one of the last of the Rabbit books, John Updike has his “hero’s” wife comment that Rabbit’s problem is he reached his peak at 18. The fall guys in George Pelecanos’ books don’t get to peak. “I am interested in the societal aspect of crime,” he told an interviewer, “and so I have to go into the lower-income neighborhoods…” and, “[T]he fact remains, ghetto kids are put behind the eight ball from day one and have less of a chance to succeed than their privileged counterparts across town, all because of an accident of birth.”

Little wonder that Mr. Pelecanos’ work on the HBO hit “The Wire,” which he has co-produced and for which he still writes, is so realistic and effective.

In “The Turnaround,” which is both the name of the barrier at the end of the road in Ken-Gar and what happens to several of the main characters, Mr. Pelecanos gets even farther away from violence and more deeply into the heads of his characters. (Still, you just know someone’s going to suffer and suffer grievously before the story ends, for Mr. Pelecanos is a moralist at core). Set in 2007, it introduces to the reader and, in a sense, re-introduces to one another, four of the five men who “survived” the incident.

There are two central figures, the somewhat autobiographical Alex Pappas, the boy who was stomped and all but lost the sight of one eye, ever after an ugly mess (and the only one of the white trio who didn’t want to go into Ken-Gar that terrible night) and Raymond Monroe, the brother the jury acquitted. Before Alex had a chance to test any other career options, his father had a heart attack and the young man had to step in and run the lunch counter. Monroe, now a physical therapist at Walter Reed, has made a good life for himself.

Halfway through the book, they meet by chance, and the first element of conflict is established. Both men have raised sons who went to Iraq, but Alex’s boy Gus was killed in action. Raymond Monroe’s son, Kenji, is in Anbar Province, but hasn´t been heard from in several weeks. Will this common thread be enough to draw the men back to a future that includes reconciliation?

The other, and scarier, element of conflict is the looming presence of Charles Baker, the man responsible for Alex Pappass’ destroyed eye and badly scarred face. His idea of reconciliation is spelled b.r.i.b.e.r.y. A nasty kid whose prison term made him into an even nastier man, he games whatever system he comes in contact with, or tries to. As for the other two once-major players, Pete Whitten is now a highly-successful Washington lawyer, and James Monroe is a small step above a shade tree mechanic. They also serve who only stand in the wings of the plot.

Now, why didn’t I feel this was top-drawer Pelecanos? For me, the book moved too slowly; it took Mr. Pelecanos too long to push all his characters on stage (a failing he has admitted to in the past) and set up the conflict. Also, I think he spends too much time naming punk rock bands and specifying brand names of the period. One can get just as tired of Chucks (as in Taylor) as Manolo Blahniks. Finally, the ending, which I won’t spoil for you, struck me as way too pat. Nonetheless, and here I may be undercutting everything I just said, this being a George Pelecanos novel, I couldn´t put it down.

In the course of his 14 previous novels, all written since 1992, Mr. Pelecanos has gone through some permutations, moving away from violence to authorial introspection into what makes his characters tick, both the good and the badly flawed. And when it comes to depicting the latter, no one is better.

A personal note: At the time of the “incident” in Ken-Gar, I lived about a mile away in Kensington, and only a few years later had a second floor office on Howard Avenue that looked directly across the railroad tracks into the community. Plus I had the pleasure and privilege of knowing Leonard Jackson, one of Ken-Gar’s foremost citizen activists. So I can attest that Mr. Pelecanos has done a marvelous job of re-creating both the era and the ethos. No one writing about the Washington metropolitan area does it better.

John Greenya is a Washington-area writer.

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