Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Book Review: The Turnaround

I thought that
The Night Gardener was one of the books of the year and that George Pelecanos was the talent to keep your eyes on. Pelecanos had all the tricks so skillfully used: the misdirection, the realist dialogue, the subtle themes, and the sense that the mystery itself isn't as important as the characters' lives were. Fast forward two years and we've reached The Turnaround, Pelecanos' follow-up.

Set in D.C. (like all of his novels),
The Turnaround is about three white boys who drive into a black neighbourhood, throw a pie and throw a racial epithet, and the dire consequences for them and the three black boys who react, which leads to the murder of one of the white kids. The novel picks up thirty years later, as the boys have become men and how their lives have changed. Alex Pappas, the most "innocent" of the white kids, is now a father and running his own diner, while Raymond Monroe, the more "innocent" black kid, is also a father and working physical therapy for Iraqi war veterans. When Charles, the more dangerous of the three black men, decides to engage in a little extortion, Alex and Raymond meet for the first time since the incident and the trial.

Again, this isn't a mystery novel, per se. The central mystery isn't that obfuscating, and right at the halfway point was when I figured out the twist ending. Which isn't to say that the novel wasn't satisfying; it's just not particularily shocking as a mystery novel.

Instead of it being about the mystery, it's more about fathers and sons and legacy, some important and hefty themes. At every turn, Pelecanos examines what it means to be a strong father, and how that can affect your life as a son and as a father for ever. Pelecanos spends a lesiurely amount of time developing the back stories of Raymond, Alex and even Charles, showing (not telling) that their fathers were either great or terrible, thus leading them down their respective paths.

The father-son theme is echoed and reversed once they become older and have kids of their own. At this point, Pelecanos devlops a subplot concerning the Iraqi war and how it got Alex's younger son killed but spared Raymond's son. There isn't any major weighty political message about the war; it's just a look at how the war affects the little people. (Although, I suspect that Pelecanos supports the war, as he provides ample discussion between characters about how freedom isn't free and that standing for your country means something, etc, etc, etc).

And just like his other novels that I've read, Pelecanos takes the time to set up a parallel plot that ultimately has nothing to do with the central mystery or plot. This time, it's drug dealers getting in over their heads. Pelecanos uses an Altman-esque connection to keep the subplot tied to the novel and lets it resolve itself rather than sully the central plot.

The Turnaround is a great novel that I managed to read very quickly, as it's fast-paced and thoroughly engrossing. I had trouble putting the novel down. As mystery novels go, this is a fantastic worthy addition to the genre that puts the hacks to shame; Pelecanos is a true author and artist.

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