The Turnaround

By GEORGE PELECANOS

“MILLIONS ARE TO BE GRABBED OUT HERE AND YOUR ONLY COMPETITION IS IDIOTS,” Herman Mankiewicz telegrammed Ben Hecht in 1927 by way of luring him to Hollywood. “DON’T LET THIS GET AROUND.”

Now that George Pelecanos has made his score writing for HBO’s The Wire — and helped turn out some great television scripts along the way — it’s good to know that he’s getting back to his first calling. On a good day, the author of Hell to Pay and Soul Circus is one of the sharpest writers in America — perhaps the sharpest. And his social passions deepen his reach beyond the cynicism that the underworld milieu of an Elmore Leonard or George Higgins, however expertly rendered, can sometimes reflect all too accurately. A romantic whose characters can quote dialogue from obscure westerns without sounding like Tarantino clones, Pelecanos is devoted to chronicling urban America, the struggle bound up with becoming a good man and why it’s worth dedicating yourself to that struggle.

It’s an eerie coincidence that the Supreme Court decision to strike down Washington, D.C.’s, gun control law has come the same summer in which his latest book, The Turnaround, appears. In novel after novel, Pelecanos has staked out D.C.’s mean streets, where blacks and whites exist in an unspoken, easily broken truce, as his Yoknapatawpa County. The electric violence in the aftermath of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. was the formative experience of his youth; he returns obsessively to the issues of race and class with the verisimilitude of one who has been there.

Along with Richard Price and Dennis Lehane (both of whom were colleagues of Pelecanos on The Wire, which wound up looking like an employment agency for the best writers in the country), his work has insistently brought home the realities of the urban experience to a fictional landscape too often dominated by the domestic problems of academics or the snarky meta-fiction of young wannabe litterateurs on the make. Of course, the debate between these two schools of writing can be oversimplified: In one corner, the Scotch-swigging, dope-smoking hard guys whose book jacket bios always seem to include a stint as a longshoreman or cabdriver; in the other, the literary heirs of John Updike, exploring thoroughly genteel dilemmas native to life in interchangeable suburban communities. (The fact that a new documentary has come out honoring the questionable legacy of “Dr.” Hunter S. Thompson has not helped matters in this regard.)

Like Price, who has dealt with the complex tangle of class and race in Freedomland, Samaritan, and Lush Life, Pelecanos is certainly in the tough-minded, tender-hearted camp. But his work succeeds not merely on the merits of its appointed social and moral landscape but on the sheer quality of the writing — an achievement repeated, for the most part, in The Turnaround.

The “turnaround” of the title is a metaphor, but it also has a literal reference: a dead end in Heathrow Heights, a black neighborhood where three aimless white high school stoner buddies find themselves trapped, after deciding to show off to each other by taking a joyride and hurling racial epithets at the locals. The consequences are predictably tragic: the driver, Billy Cachoris, is shot to death; Nick Pappas, the novel’s working-class protagonist, almost loses an eye; and the third boy, Pete Whitten, flees the scene like a scared rabbit.

The incident marks the end of Pappas’s youth — he abandons his literary dreams to take over his father’s Greek restaurant and try to become a better man. Meanwhile, the three black kids involved in the retaliatory strike find their lives incalculably turned around as well. Two go to prison, whereas the third — the most culpable — escapes punishment when his older brother decides to take the rap.

The lives of these two groups become intertwined again, through a plot mechanism that seems uncharacteristically creaky: the shooter, Raymond Monroe, who has taken a job as a physical therapist at Walter Reade Hospital as an attempt at atonement, has an accidental encounter with Pappas at the hospital and seeks him out, looking for a way to try to repair the damage in a world gone inescapably wrong. Their rapprochement is complicated by the involvement of Charles Baker, a prison-hardened tough responsible for beating up Pappas, as he attempts to shake down Whitten, now a yuppified lawyer, for “reparations” after seeing his name in the newspapers. He’s a lowlife who could come straight out of the pages of The Friends of Eddie Coyle or Elmore Leonard’s Detroit trilogy.

The central theme of The Turnaround seems to be the idea of possibility — so it feels a little odd that the sections dealing with Baker’s lame attempt at a scam have more energy than some of the rest of the book. The prose sometimes feels slack, at least in comparison to the high standard Pelecanos set for himself in books like Nick’s Trip, an updated urban homage to The Long Goodbye whose sentences crackle with Raymond Chandler–esque precision, or Soul Circus, in which he subverts the private eye genre into a larger statement about race and character without getting all preachy on us.

“Any Negro who wishes to live must live with danger from his first day, and no experience can ever be casual to him, no Negro can saunter down a street with any real certainty that violence will not visit him on his walk,” Norman Mailer wrote in his infamous essay, “The White Negro,” in 1957. “The cameos of security for the average white: mother and the home, job and the family, are not even a mockery to millions of Negroes; they are impossible.” Unlike Mailer, however, Pelecanos always convinces us that he’s at home in his milieu — he’s never slumming. And in The Turnaround, as in his previous works, he’s a one-man encyclopedia of the sounds of ’70s funk and soul music — tunes so obviously engraved in his DNA that they eclipse more conventional literary influences.

Music, rebellion, violence, and redemption are all on the table, along with the willingness to entertain a change in the lives of the characters he depicts and in the politics of the nation they — and we — live in. All of which fires the hope that Pelecanos might think about moving a step or two outside the comfort zone of the genre fiction in which he has proved himself so expert and make a literary “turnaround” worthy of his extraordinary gifts. That’s a sound I’d like to hear.

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