It's a hot summer afternoon in 1972 in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. Three white teenagers, bored and stoned, cruise the streets, aimlessly seeking relief from the tedium. They drive into a poor black neighborhood, ironically named Heathrow Heights. For fun, one decides to toss a cherry pie, splattering a teenage resident of the neighborhood. Minutes later, the driver lies dead of a bullet wound, one passenger is severely beaten and six lives are altered forever.
Acclaimed as one of America's most thoughtful crime novelists, George Pelecanos continues to stretch the boundaries of his genre to explore the moral dimensions of human action in his latest novel, THE TURNAROUND. It's an absorbing story likely to burnish his reputation with his loyal fans and expose him to a wider audience.
Alex Pappas is one of the young men in the car who enters Heathrow Heights on the fateful afternoon. When the novel fast forwards to 2007, he's the 51-year-old owner of a modest coffee shop near DuPont Circle he's been running since age 19, when his father died of a heart attack. Alex's younger son, Gus, has been killed in Iraq and he's grooming his older son, John, to take over the family business.
Every afternoon, Alex quietly delivers pies and desserts to the wounded veterans at Walter Reed Medical Center. On one of those visits he encounters Raymond Monroe, a physical therapist at the hospital whose own son has been deployed to Afghanistan. When Monroe discovers that Pappas, like him, was involved in the Heathrow Heights incident, he seeks him out, taking the first tentative steps toward reconciliation after 35 years. Raymond's older brother, James, sentenced to 10 years in prison (bloated to 20 for his misconduct there) for shooting Alex's friend, the driver, works as a mechanic in a nondescript auto repair shop. Raymond struggles to persuade his reluctant brother to let the past surrender its hold on him.
Charles Baker, who inflicted a beating that caused permanent damage to Alex's eye, lives on the fringes of the law, working fitfully at a menial job in a nursing home. He has hooked up with two teenagers running a small drug dealing operation and is looking for the big score --- whether it's a chance to muscle out their supplier or to blackmail Alex or the other occupant of the car, who fled the scene and now has become a prominent Washington lawyer recognized for his work helping minorities.
Pelecanos skillfully creates an atmosphere of foreboding as the five survivors of the Heathrow Heights incident head toward a denouement that feels at some times as if it may be cataclysmic and at others redemptive. His ability to sustain this tension to the end of the novel is a testament to his skill in creating both credible characters and a plausible plot. Sympathetic without yielding to sentimentality, he draws sharp contrasts between characters like Alex and Raymond, who've managed to carve out respectable middle class lives, and those like Charles Baker and James Monroe, for whom the burden of bad choices shadows their every action.
A native of Washington who happens to be roughly the same age as the principal characters of the novel, Pelecanos is adept at capturing the atmosphere of working class life there, both in the 1970s and today. Beyond possessing an intimate knowledge of his setting, he has a knack for invoking the music, clothing, hairstyles and cars that associate the characters with a particular era or social class.
Each day, the media offer up fresh stories of violent crime. Soon, the details of these events fade from our memories and we're unlikely to spend much time pondering their permanent impact on perpetrators, victims and their families. Without moralizing, George Pelecanos forces us to pause and reflect on the consequences that flow from an instant of thoughtless violence. That he does so in the form of a page-turning novel makes his achievement all the more impressive.
Reviewed by Harvey Freedenberg on January 23, 2011