'The Turnaround,' by George Pelecanos Little

Boys to men: Pelecanos' characters grow up damaged in a tough world

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While George Pelecanos touches on the mystic in novels such as 2006's acclaimed "The Night Gardener," he never loses his feel for the mundane, which for him is more strength than fault.

That's certainly true of his latest book. Vivid locale, rich characterization, period features, a dense story and convincing realism fuel Pelecanos' new tale of transformation.

It pits the Monroe brothers, Raymond and James, against their former associate, street thug Charles Baker, in a yarn about -- call it karma. That word certainly had currency in 1972, the year of the event that launches the book.

By George Pelecanos Little
Brown. ($24.99)

Set in Washington, D.C., Pelecanos' favorite territory, the novel flowers from a drive a group of white boys take into an unfamiliar black neighborhood. Their encounter with the Monroes and Baker, a trio of black boys, ends violently when one of the whites is killed and another, Alex Pappas, the father of John Pappas (the Pappas family figures in several Pelecanos novels), is injured and badly scarred.

Raymond turns his life around, while James does hard time. Joining James in the joint -- never psychologically leaving it -- is Baker, one of Pelecanos' more memorable embodiments of evil.

He skillfully intertwines the lives of Raymond and Alex as they re-encounter each other 30 years after the incident that sundered them. Baker, meanwhile, remains a case of arrested, singularly nasty development.

While Pelecanos focuses on the main protagonists, he doesn't shortchange lesser figures like the supercilious, stylish Pete Whitten, one of the white boys in the 1972 incident.

To draw a bead on generational and cultural change, follow the relationship between Alex and Pete and, particularly, Alex and John Pappas.

It's not just the characters that captivate. It's the way Pelecanos captures cultural variance in a single paragraph, even, at times, a single phrase. Here, John Pappas muses on his restaurant business:

"Human contact, the personal touch. This is what kept him in business. Try to get that at Starbucks, or the Lunch Stop. ... The Asians knew how to run an efficient operation, and they were workhorses, but they couldn't make meaningful eye contact with their customers to save their lives."

Racist? No, just accurate. Such a description is Pelecanos' way of getting inside the head of, and exposing, a character. It's the sort of paragraph the reader remembers as the story develops and the character of Alex Pappas fleshes out.

Ultimately, "The Turnaround" is about the changing nature of masculinity. In this somewhat schematic novel, a mystery on the surface and a meditation not that far down, soft men such as Alex Pappas get harder and learn to lead.

Hard men like James Monroe soften and learn to adapt. As that primal 1972 incident comes into focus, thanks to the way Alex doggedly picks at the scabs of his memory, he and Raymond come to see what they have in common. Being damaged isn't all they share, they find; aspirations, too, figure.

In the end, a knot from a master of noir is untangled, suggesting that courage takes many forms, some only accessible to grown-ups.

Carlo Wolff is a freelance writer from Cleveland.


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