The Real Pelecanos
Monday, July 28, 2008
By George Pelecanos
Little, Brown. 294 pp. $24.99
George Pelecanos's fine new novel continues the remarkable portrait of this city he has been producing for the past 16 years. "The Turnaround" is his 15th novel and probably his most accessible. The unnerving violence, often drug-related, that marked many of his earlier books is muted here. The story begins with a racially inspired murder, but in time the old hatreds give way to a quest for forgiveness. It's a mature story, told with easy mastery, and no one who cares about Washington and about excellence in American writing should miss it.
In an opening section, set in Washington and the Maryland suburbs in 1972, we meet two groups of teenagers, one black, one white. The white boys are Alex Pappas, Billy Cachoris and Pete Whitten, and the focus is on Alex, whom we may take as a portrait of the artist as a young man. Alex's father operates a coffee and sandwich shop near Dupont Circle, as Pelecanos's father did for many years. Young Alex, like the young Pelecanos, spends summers delivering sandwiches for his father, even as he dreams of becoming a writer. Alex is 16, just discovering girls, beer and weed, and when he attends a Stones concert at RFK Stadium on July 4 he doubts that life can ever be more glorious. Then one night Alex is cruising around with his friends. One of the other boys has the idea of driving to Heathrow Heights, an African American enclave in Montgomery County, and raising some hell. By then we've met the black youths who are sitting outside the general store there, drinking beer and talking basketball: the brothers James and Raymond Monroe, who are good kids, and Charles Baker, a troubled, violent young man. The white boys come roaring in, shout insults, throw a pie and then find their exit blocked and their victims poised for revenge. One boy escapes, one is badly beaten, and one is shot to death. The scene is based on a 1972 incident in the Ken-Gar community in Montgomery County.
We move to the present. Alex Pappas, past 50 now, never achieved his dream of writing. After his father's death, he took over the coffee shop and has run it for more than 30 years. His older son helps him; his younger son recently was killed in the war in Iraq. Devastated, Alex has begun driving to Walter Reed Army Medical Center after work to donate pies to the soldiers being treated there. One day he is recognized by Raymond Monroe, one of the black men in the long-ago fatal "incident," who is now a physical therapist at the hospital. Unlike his brother and Charles Baker, Raymond escaped prison in the white boy's death. He seeks reconciliation with Alex, and Alex is receptive, but there is a problem.
The problem is Charles Baker, who has been in and out of prison all his life. He's a career criminal, a predator who thinks himself justified in preying on the weak. Free on parole, he has a new scheme: He will seek "reparations" from Alex and Pete Whitten, now a successful Washington lawyer, by threatening their families. The novel relates Alex and Raymond's attempts at reconciliation, even as both men try to stave off the menace of the relentless Baker. The reader is painfully uncertain whether a peaceful ending to the confrontation is possible or whether the tragedy of the past is destined to repeat itself.
Pelecanos's narrative unfolds effortlessly, carrying us deep into a dozen lives: old and young, black and white, rich and poor. We learn a lot about how to operate a coffee shop. We observe moving scenes at Walter Reed, where Pelecanos has clearly spent time, and we're caught up in a marijuana distribution scheme that ends in violence. Although Pelecanos's writing is rarely lyrical, much less literary, there's a wonderful purity to it. Partly that's because he polishes every line, but there's a more basic reason. Many writers use endless gimmicks to hold the reader's interest. There's none of that in Pelecanos: no tricks, nothing forced, never a false note. In researching his novels and writing scripts for HBO's "The Wire," he has learned a great deal about the world and he's giving us reality as he understands it, however disturbing it may sometimes be. He's one of the most uncompromising writers you'll ever encounter.
I think of Pelecanos's novels as separate chapters in one hugely ambitious work that seeks to encompass, perhaps to reconcile, two aspects of Washington: the Greek American experience he knew as a young man and the larger black experience that to him defines the city, far more than the political world, and endlessly challenges him as a writer. For me, the highlight of his work so far is the four novels -- "Right as Rain," "Hell to Pay," Soul Circus" and "Hard Revolution" -- published between 2001 and 2004 and focusing on the private investigator Derek Strange. Still, "The Turnabout" is a gem and a good place to start if you're approaching Pelecanos's work for the first time.