Turnaround, by George Pelecanos – Book Review

The Turnaround, by George PelecanosThe Turnaround, by George Pelecanos
Publisher: Back Bay Books
Publication Date: April 7, 2009
Format: Trade Paperback, 320 pages
In A Nutshell: Recommended

In the summer of 1972 three  teenagers go into the unfamiliar neighborhood of Heathrow Heights. They are restless and looking for trouble, and boy do they find it.  They cross paths with three other teenagers who are natives of the neighborhood and things happen that can never be taken back.  The events of that hot summer afternoon has far reaching repercussions for all involved.

When the novel opens it concentrates on the family lives of the Monroes and the Pappas.  Both families are working class- Alex is the son of diner owner John Pappas.    John is proud of the diner and has named it for him and his sons whom he hopes will continue on in the family business. Alex is an average student and he spends his time working the cash register/making deliveries for his father’s diner and slacking off with his obnoxious and insensitive friends. Do you see where this is going? Right, trouble.

James and Raymond are the sons of outstanding members of a humble community on the other side of town.  James is the more ambitious of the brothers- he works part-time at a local gas station and hopes to have his own business one day, he also feels particularly responsible for his younger brother Raymond who has a tendency to lean toward hanging out with neighborhood bad boy Charles Baker. Do you see where this is going? Right, trouble.

After the mysterious incident, of which we don’t learn the full details until the story unfolds, The Turnaround picks up around thirty years later where Alex is running his father’s diner and Raymond is a physical therapist at the local veteran’s hospital.  Raymond is anxiously awaiting news of his son who is in the military and stationed in Iraq, while Alex’s youngest son has been killed in the war.  Raymond happens to see Alex who is in the habit of delivering sweets to the soldiers recuperating in the hospital.  Raymond approaches him so that they can finally begin to come to terms with their shared past, but even as he approaches Alex so that they can talk, danger threatens the families if both men when someone from their past wants reparations- and doesn’t care what has to be dome to get them.

George Pelecanos is an author who is new to me.  I was intrigued when I read the description of The Turnaround.  When I first got the book I read a few pages, because I can never seem to resist doing that when I get a new book, and it surprised me when I wasn’t able to put it down.  I was expecting the unraveling of the mysterious crime that took place a long time ago.  I expected that the telling of the story would involve jumps between the past and  the present giving tantalizing clues about what happened all those years ago.  In these ways this book was much as I expected it to be. What I didn’t expect, and what made reading this that much more addictive, was the care given the characterization  of these men and their families and how and all of the intricate details that go into building a realistic representations of culture, language and a specific period in American history, namely the ’70’s.

There were such sprawling elements in this story,  but they were really well done.  I like how they are so seamlessly woven through the story .  Fathers are dealing with the military and their sons, wanting to protect them, while each struggles with their past wrongs, while getting on with the pieces left of their lives as best they can.  There were a few scenes in this book which were brutal.  I read them cringing because I really didn’t believe that it was going to go there. If I had realized at the time that I was reading a novel written by one of the writers of the gritty HBO drama The Wire, I would have had no doubt at all that the story would very realistically go where it did.  I can’t say that anything was laid out in graphic detail but the implications were loud and to my mind very visible.

All of the characters were flawed, but I liked most pf them and up to a point I held hope for all of them. Themes of duty, finding and pursuing a meaningful life, and responsibility to family and community were present as a natural part of life.  I wanted to see what happened with the characters as they struggled with what they felt was owed to them and what they felt they owed to others.  The only thing this didn’t really explore was the legal aspects of the trial which interested me because  the sentences received and how they came to the verdicts because I was surprised

The Turnaround is hard to categorize, and it seems to be another one of the hybrids that have been making there way into fiction lately, and I am glad of it.  It’s a bit of a mystery and a crime acts as a catalyst in the story, but Pelacanos also deeply explores the characters and illuminates their family lives, which I’m not used to seeing. I was impressed with his ear for language and the nuances of speech with the different families in the stories.  The details about 70’s cars, culture and clothes were fascinating,and I loved the way he included a lot of the songs from that time period as well. People who love crime dramas and books exploring race relations and racially motivated incidents will like this one. If you’ve been looking to take a peek at the crime genre but also need a little bit more substance, I think you’ll find what you are looking for here.

About The Author:

George Pelecanos is an independent-film producer, an essayist, the recipient of numerous international writing awards, a producer and an Emmy-nominated writer on the HBO hit series The Wire, and the author of a bestselling series of novels set in and around Washington, D.C.

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  1. I’ve been meaning to read Pelecanos for years, especially since he writes about my current home town, D.C. and its surround environs. I’ve heard many great things about this book. In fact, I almost bought it in paperback a couple of weeks ago. I hope to get to this soon.

    Great review.

  2. Awesome review! Like J.S. Peyton, I’ve been interested in Pelecanos because he’s a “hometown boy” — and this sounds like a great read! I typically stay away from anything gritty, but the familial aspects and mystery definitely intrigue me. I’m willing to give it a shot!

  3. I wanted to get this one at BEA, but the line was too long and I was running out of time. It sounds great. I love books with lots of character building. And, a mystery thrown in for a bonus!

  4. Not always that into crime, but it sure sounds like he did a great job. And just for that I am curious about having a look. I should expand my reading and these sorts of books the library do plenty of

  5. Wonderful review! I read The Night Gardener by this author a couple of years ago and had a similar reaction. The author really got into the minds of the characters. Everything–and everyone–was so real. And I hear that’s not even his best book. I look forward to reading this one by him as well as some of his earlier work. (I admit I am a huge fan of The Wire.)

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