Title: The Turnaround
Author: George Pelecanos
Release Date: August 2008
Publisher: Back Bay Books
Source: Personal collection
Rating: 3 out of 5
Producer of The Wire and author of countless books, George Pelecanos is a mainstay in the D.C. literary scene. It is impossible to talk about D.C. books without mentioning the prolific and popular Pelecanos—and that’s why I was slightly embarrassed to admit that I’d never read any of his books. However, I have changed my ways, beginning with (appropriately) The Turnaround.
Alex Pappas seems like an average, daydreaming teenager in the mid-1970s. From the suburbs of Maryland he hitchhikes to work at his stoic Greek father’s restaurant in Northwest; hitching, he says, is more interesting than taking the bus, and bonus points if his ride is a pothead like himself. He trips through his day thinking about his girlfriend and music, and after work he hangs out with two of his like-minded friends, drinking beer and smoking up.
Raymond and James Monroe are brothers growing up in a stable home and a black community prone to turbulence and poverty. James is already a hard worker with big plans for himself and his younger brother, who seems more entranced by the swagger of their troublemaker friend, Charles Baker. One day Raymond finds a gun hidden in James’ dresser, and “it was as if a match had been struck inside him. Strength and manhood could come to a boy at once with the touch of a gun.”
The boys in both communities are faced with the dual pressures of adolescence and racial inequity, and the tensions brewing beneath the surface come to a head one summer evening as Alex finds himself backseat (literally) to a hate crime performed by his friends. As they drive by James, Raymond, and Charles, Alex’s friends scream obscenities out the window and throw junk food at the other boys. However, when they reach the end of the road, they realize that it is a dead end and they must turn around. Waiting for them are the victims of their hate, and what happens next will permanently affect the lives of all involved.
Now, decades later, his friends have died or moved on, but Alex remains embedded in the community. He still bears the physical and psychological scars of his friends’ crime and the cumulative sorrow that years bestow upon any person, but he has taken over his deceased father’s business and has managed to make the best of an unfortunate situation. He is happily married, with one son, Johnny, who has big dreams for the restaurant and another son, Gus, a tragic victim of the war in Iraq.
However, Charles Baker has not changed his ways; after years spent in and out of prison, his anger and resentment have only intensified. He schemes to extort money from Alex, first by threatening Alex’s reputation and then his family, and he forces James Monroe to aid in his cause.
James’s once-oversized ambitions have dwindled down to hope for a cold beer after a long day at work; a series of bad decisions led him deeper into the life he’d hoped to avoid, and he works as a car mechanic in a poorly heated garage. However, he has learned to accept responsibility for his actions and is trying to straighten his path from here on out. As his brother Raymond, now a respected physical therapist to soldiers returning from Iraq, explains to one of his patients:
“You’re gonna realize something as you get older. Hopefully it’ll come to you quicker than it did to me. Life is long. Who you are now, the things you did, how you’re feeling, like your world is never going to be as good as it was? None of that is going to matter as you move along. It only will if you let it. . . . Whatever you did before doesn’t matter. What matters now is how you make the turnaround.”
The brothers decide that they must protect Alex from Charles. In the process, the men form a surprising friendship with Alex, and share a secret that they have carefully guarded for decades.
As a transplant to the D.C. area, I am fascinated to learn about the long, divided history of the city. Pelecanos skillfully illustrates the tensions that still exist in juxtaposed cultures and communities. He describes a scene between Charles Baker and one of his young, black colleagues, Deon:
Two blocks up ahead, at Clifton Street, young white people in business clothes were walking over the crest of the big hill running along Cardozo High School, coming up from the Metro station toward their condos and houses.
“Look at that,” said Baker. “They think they can just move in here. . . . They don’t even know where they at or what can happen to ’em. Walkin all confident and shit. They think they gonna take over our city.”
“Thought you grew up in Maryland,” said Deon.
“Don’t correct me, boy,” said Baker, his face old and grim in the dashboard light. “I don’t like it when you do.”
As a young, white professional in Columbia Heights, the historically black neighborhood the Pelecanos describes, I am reminded that cultural integration has come only in fits and starts, and the decades have not erased long-held resentment over inequity and injustice. Pelecanos is at his finest while describing the chasms between communities, and what happens when two different cultures collide. He describes the internal struggle that Charles experiences when confronted with these two worlds:
Baker did feel like a million dollars, walking out of the house. But when he got downtown, coming off the Metro escalator at Farragut North, moving along in the bustle of Connecticut Avenue, he got that feeling again, the feeling he had whenever he left his insular world, that he was out of step and wrong. Around him, workingmen and -women of all colors, finely and effortlessly attired, carrying soft leather briefcases and handbags, walking with purpose, going somewhere. He did not understand how they had gotten here. Who taught them how to dress in that quiet, elegant way? How did they get their jobs?
Though I was impressed by Pelecanos’ ability to weave in the culture and geography of D.C. so effortlessly, I was disappointed in his weak character development. Simply put, if a character is bad to begin with, he stays bad; if he is good, he stays good. If he is nice but perhaps influenced too much by his circumstances, then his circumstances ultimately lead him back to relative happiness. (And I say “he” here purposefully; the only women that appear are minor characters that do little or nothing to advance the plot.) These static characters form a flat dimension of the story that makes it seem predictable even at its most exciting parts.
However, the book is overall an interesting read that offers a valuable glimpse into the lives of members of different communities, even if those characters seems forced or stereotypical at times. It seems as though Pelecanos has produced another solid, if predictable, book—one that will appease his current fans with an entertaining, thrilling story while reaching out to readers and residents, like myself, interested in the ever-vibrant communities of D.C.
George Pelecanos was born in Washington, D.C., in 1957, and currently lives in Silver Spring, Maryland, with his wife and three children. He is the author of fourteen other crime novels set in and around Washington, D.C.