by George Pelecanos
Published by Little, Brown
302 pages, 2008
Scars and Shadows
Reviewed by Jim Winter
It’s 1972, and Alex Pappas doesn’t want any trouble. He just wants to go to college and become a writer. He’s not even interested in taking over his father’s coffee shop, much as his father wants him to do. Hoping to stay clear of trouble, as well, is James Monroe, who wants to become a mechanic like his own father. But when Alex and two friends make a beer-fueled run into Washington, D.C.’s Heathrow Heights, an isolated black neighborhood, their worlds are irrevocably ruined. A shouted racial epithet turns into a fight that leaves one boy dead, Alex maimed and James headed for prison.
Dead is Billy Cachoris, who drove the car into Heathrow Heights with Alex and another boy, Peter Whitten. One of those boys throws a cherry pie at someone and yells “Nigger!” That sets off Heathrow Heights kid Raymond Monroe, James’ younger brother, and sparks a fight between the boys in Cachoris’ car and the neighborhood boys. Egging on the Monroe brothers is a thug-in-training named Charles Barker. The fight, which costs Billy Cachoris his life, sends both Peter Whitten and an injured Alex Pappas running.
So begins The Turnaround, the latest D.C. crime saga from George Pelecanos. That confrontation mentioned above and the chapters leading up to it serve only as an overture to Pelecanos’ latest dark composition. What follows it takes place in the present, when Alex runs his father’s coffee shop, hoping to turn it over to his son, and James …
Well, James becomes a minor character in the story, if only because he is also a minor character in his own life, reduced to earning minimum wage in a back-alley garage. Instead, center stage is shared by James’ brother, Raymond. Raymond works at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, hoping to give back to the military while his son serves in Afghanistan. Like Raymond, Alex’s life has been touched by war: He lost his older son in Iraq.
Now bullying his way into the spotlight comes Charles Baker. Baker knows only a criminal life and the law of the jungle. He believes that the slaying back in 1972 of Billy Cachoris, Alex’s friend, ruined his life. Never mind that it was Baker who led the savage beating that maimed Alex Pappas. He believes Alex and Peter Whitten owe him reparations. Ever the schemer, he tries to blackmail Whitten, now a powerful lawyer with strong ties to the black community.
When Whitten says no, going as far as to make sure Baker knows that he’s barely escaping a return to prison, Baker changes up and guns for Alex Pappas, instead. However, by the time Whitten warns Alex, Raymond Monroe has already approached Baker. Raymond wants nothing more than to have his brother’s name kept out of it. It seems Baker conned the elder Monroe into a minor role in the blackmail scheme.
The Turnaround is less a crime story than it is about closure and revenge. Alex is trying to do right by his father by continuing the family business, yet wanting something more. Raymond is trying to return a favor done for him by his brother and trying to eject Charles Baker from their lives once and for all. As for Baker?
Baker is, for all his charm and cleverness, a stupid animal. Whereas everyone else who survived the incident in Heathrow Heights has worked hard to move beyond that fight, Baker believes the world owes him as a result of it, if only because Baker can still hurt people if they don’t pay up. In a subplot involving his girlfriend’s pot-dealing son, Baker gets it into his head that he can simply take over the distributor’s business by frightening and humiliating him.
Sadly, it’s this mentality that’s kept Baker down all these years, dragging James Monroe down with him.
The Turnaround does not break new ground. Instead, author Pelecanos plays all the familiar notes to bring out what’s on his mind. As usual, race relations and the long-term effects of crime on both the criminal and the victim loom large. Pelecanos also manages to comment on the Iraq and Afghan wars without hitting you over the head with them. Both are part of the fabric of some of his characters’ lives. Even if Raymond Monroe’s son was not in Afghanistan, his job at Walter Reed would make the war inescapable for both Monroe and the reader.
It wouldn’t be a Pelecanos novel without the flavor of Greek-American culture laced throughout. Nor would it be the same without a broad range of black culture. Raymond Monroe becomes, as an adult, one of those middle-class blacks who drive a lot of Pelecanos’ stories, while Charles Baker and his reluctant protégé, Deon Brown, show the dark side of life in the U.S. capital.
Nor would this be a Pelecanos novel without the music. From the teenage Raymond Monroe listening to Led Zeppelin (thinking he was pretty awesome) and young Alex Pappas popping Humble Pie (with Peter Frampton at this point) into an 8-track player, to the older versions of these characters waxing nostalgic over D.C. radio stations WOL and WOOK, Pelecanos shows off his vast knowledge of music trivia.
As if to anchor the story to the universe Pelecanos has built over the years, some familiar names and places also appear in these pages. The adult Baker’s very first scene takes place in Leo’s, with the same alcoholics from The Night Gardener (2006) still arguing sports and music. More noticeably, Rodney “The Rooster” Draper, last seen in the Nick Stefanos novels working for Nutty Nathan’s, is now doing bait-and-switch ads for the stereo chain. Yet the fight in Heathrow Heights is an important event in Draper’s past, too, and Draper plays a role in bringing closure to Alex and Raymond.
If The Turnaround has one flaw, it’s the early chapters. Sure, it’s great when Pelecanos spends time in the ’70s. No one writing today captures the feel and mood of that era quite as expertly as he does. Pelecanos’ eye (and ear, for that matter) for the details of that decade take the reader back in time without really dating the narrative. The front section of this novel drags a little, though, unnecessarily taking its time setting up characters who will flesh themselves out nicely later in the book. But of course it’s hard to see that until you’ve read a few chapters featuring Alex and Raymond and Baker in the present. And by then, you’re hooked anyway.
The Turnaround is not bold or new or surprising. But like a band that has established its cred over the years, it has the same chops that attracted us in the first place, now smoother and more precise. Unlike a lot of those bands, however, you don’t grow tired of Pelecanos’ voice. You just want to know what notes he’s going to play next. | September 2008
Jim Winter is a writer, reviewer and comedian in Cincinnati, Ohio, where he does tech support for an insurance company. He’s a regular contributor to Crimespree and an occasional contributor to both The Rap Sheet and the comedy podcast The Awful Show. His short stories have appeared in Pulp Pusher, Spinetingler Magazine and Plots With Guns. Check out his blog, Edged in Blue.