Saturday, 12 September 2009

What goes around comes around?

One of the interesting side effects of the success of The Wire is the bump in profile of a number of crime writers who have written for it. Authors who formerly would only ever have surfaced at genre conventions or passed unmentioned at the top of best-sellers lists, now get interviewed on arts programmes on the television or radio. These have included Richard Price (who I've reviewed here before), Dennis Lehane (who I haven't) and George Pelecanos, who I've read before but for whom this, The Turnaround, is the first review.

Set in poor and poorer districts of Washington DC, the novel begins in the 1960s where teenage Alex Pappas is working in his father's Greek diner and looking forwards to college. Hooking up with some hot-headed friends one day, they drive to a neighbouring black district where their paths cross with the brothers James and Raymond Monroe, and the sociopathic Charles Baker. However, after precipitating a racist incident, Alex and his friends find themselves on the receiving end of an assault by the Monroe brothers and Baker, an event that changes the direction of their lives, and which ends the life of Alex's friend Billy. The novel then flash-forwards to the present-day, where Alex now tends his long-dead father's diner, college not having been part of his future after all. James now works as a physiotherapist with disabled veterans, while worrying about his own son serving in Iraq. Meanwhile, Raymond, convicted of the fatal assault, struggles to hold jobs and orbits too closely to Baker and his life of petty crime and thuggery. A chance meeting between Alex and James triggers the latter into making a reconciliatory connection. But Baker sees an opportunity for making a fast buck from his former victims, and drags Raymond into his plans.

This is really a crime-and-consequences novel. While it begins with a fatal crime and spirals around the preparation for a further one, it spends much of its time dwelling on the various consequences that its characters have experienced since they were brought together in their youth. And it succeeds at this really well. The quite different life paths of Alex, James and Baker are fleshed out nicely, and following them over just a few weeks puts a real shape on the lives that they've flopped into or carved out for themselves. Though Alex is arguably the central character, James' desire to forge a connection with Alex and to get some sort of closure on the past crime makes him the novel's moral core. Baker serves as the novel's "free parameter", a perennially criminal wheeler-dealer whose actions jeopardise James' plans. Although, even here, the novel pauses to consider his life and the forces that have shaped his apparent "choices".

One slightly odd detail in the novel is that it transpires that the exact perpetrators of the original crime are not those who are punished for it. The novel at first appears to make this clear early on, but then seems to muddy things by keeping coy to make Alex's later discovery of this an Event. I may have just misread it on this point, of course.

Anyway, overall a pretty solid piece of writing. While confined to the genre ghetto, a lot more character-driven and a lot less formulaic than convention (and, in fact, the last Pelecanos I read). Although, as implied already, not entirely surprising from someone who's written for The Wire.


chimpaction said...

Interesting & timely review. I've just finished watching the last episode of The Wire. What a show!

Anyway, feel sorry for me as I read your blog, infected with tonsilitis. The price to pay for mixing with hundreds of kids 5 days a week I suppose :(

Plumbago said...

We've seen seasons 1 and 2 so far, but we're deliberately going through them slowly because we're aware that they're a finite resource. Might be starting season 3 in the coming week, as we're fresh out of other distractions.

Anyway, just view your illness as an ideal opportunity to catch up on your reading / videogaming. I won't ask how you came to catch tonsillitis from your students ...