THE TURNAROUND by George Pelecanos

Book Quote:

“What matters now is how you make the turnaround.”

Book Review:

Reviewed by Hagen Baye (MAY 08, 2009)

With his 15th novel, The Turnaround, George Pelecanos has written another powerful story that permits him to expound on the themes and issues his writing has centered on: the possibility of reconciliation, the meaning of work, the issues of race and class, the importance of family and friendship, and sacrifice.

The story, though set in 2007, revolves around what’s described by its principals as the “incident,” a foolish prank in 1972 by drunken white teenagers that becomes an ugly, tragic racial incident that results in a number of “broken lives,” where one boy is killed, another badly beaten and two end up in jail, one for only a year, but the other for twenty.

In 1972, Billy Cachoris, acting on incessant dares of buddy Peter Whitten, drives into an all-black enclave, Heathrow Heights, said to be just outside of Washington DC.  Besides Pete, Alex Pappas is also in the car.  Around that time, driving through Heathrow Heights shouting racial epithets had been a favored prank of white teenagers.   Entering Heathrow Heights, Billy shouts out a racial epithet at three black teenagers standing around and Pete hurls a cheery pie at them, hitting one.  Those that had preceded them were aware of the lay of the land and would do their stupid stuff on the way out, as there is only one way in and out of the Heathrow Heights.  Billy, Pete and Alex are shocked to learn they cannot leave without first facing the black youngsters they just ridiculed.  Peter, a WASP whose father is a lawyer, bolts from the car and escapes on foot through the woods. Billy, like Alex, a working-class Greek-American “ethnic”—as Pelecanos puts it– faces the blacks and offers to “work things out.” Billy gets sucker-punched, then shot to death.  Alex, a silent back seat passenger the whole time, gets severely beaten, requires reconstruction surgery and is left with a droopy, permanently sad-looking left eye surrounded by scars.

Billy, Pete and Alex also did not (could not) know that the mother of two of the black teens, James and Raymond Monroe, had been the target of a previous incident, and these youngsters were incensed that anyone would taunt their hard-working, deeply religious mother.  James was so outraged that he actually purchased a gun for the sole purpose of frightening anyone he encountered daring to repeat the same.  Unfortunately, this was the gun that was used to kill Billy.

The blacks are arrested.  The judge discredits the provocation of the racial slur, the thrown pie and the previous incidents.  James Monroe is convicted for Billy’s killing, and he is sentenced to ten years in jail (but would serve a total of 20 years on account of subsequent jailhouse incidents).  Charles Baker, who sucker-punched Billy and administered Alex’s beating, gets less than a year in jail; his sentence is reduced in exchange for his testimony against James.  Raymond Monroe, James’s younger brother, is found innocent and is released.

The book is really about what happens when, as men in their 50’s, the five survivors cross paths thirty-five years later in 2007, in one instance by coincidence, in the other by design.

Raymond Monroe runs into Alex Pappas at Walter Reed hospital, where Raymond works as a physical therapist, tending to the wounded in body (and soul) from Iraq and Afghanistan.  Alex’s droopy eye enables Raymond to match Alex to the badly beaten boy from the “incident.”  He learns that Alex comes by every day to bring sweets from his diner to the wounded vets.  He also learns that Alex had lost a son in Iraq.  Raymond’s own son is in active military service in Afghanistan.

Raymond’s been deeply troubled by the “incident” over the years, particularly worried about his brother and over the ruinous affect of jail on James, who has turned into a beer-guzzling overweight loner, a shadow of his old self, stuck in time in 1972.  James had excelled in repairing cars of that time but never learned about the newer cars and that, plus his criminal record, limited his ability to find work.  Raymond had been bitter and distrustful about it all, but his late wife, who died young from cancer, had helped him work through it and become a “settled man.”  Raymond suggests to Alex they get together to see if they can achieve some kind of closure.

At the time Raymond approaches Alex, Alex is facing a number of issues.  He is recovering from the intense grief he felt over his younger son’s death and is experiencing a sort-of mid-life crisis with respect to the diner he inherited from his father.  Alex’s plans to attend college were derailed when his father got sick and he had to run the diner and eventually take it over when his father died.  While he did not resent or regret being forced into the family business, he did it with quiet resignation and at this stage in his life would like to pursue something that he is passionate about.  Regarding the “incident,” he always felt great guilt over not doing anything to stop his friends from going to Heathrow Heights.  He felt that had he made an effort to stop them, Billy would still be alive.  He also knew that he should have stopped them, because what his friends planned to do was very wrong.  Unlike his friends who had minimal and distant contacts with blacks (indeed, Pete looked down on everyone and “[Billy’s] father had taught him to be ignorant”–a profound line that one writes a book around), Alex had developed friendships with the blacks who worked in his father’s diner, and his father pounded into his head that it was their efforts that was the basis for the diner’s success.  After some thought, he accepts Raymond’s offer.

At the same time as Raymond’s chance meeting with Alex, Charles Baker, the youngster who was hit in the face with the pie, and who–other than the shooting–had done all of the violence meted out that fateful day in 1972, comes across a newspaper piece about Peter Whitten, which portrays Whitten as a successful, prominent DC attorney who made substantial contributions to needy African-American children.  Baker, who suffered serious abuse as a child, had a reputation of being “always bad” and was a career criminal.  He contacts Whitten and when they meet requests “reparations” for all that happened to him as a result of Whitten et al’s “coming into our world” in exchange for Baker’s agreement not to embarrass Whitten’s by informing all of his involvement in the “incident.”  Baker happens to think he is smarter than he really is, and this is yet another miscalculation in a pathetic life of one bad move after another.  Whitten informs Baker that he has already informed all of his role in the “incident” and in fact uses it as a lesson for the disadvantaged kids he helps to demonstrate how one can overcome mistakes and still make something of themselves.  Whitten warns Baker that he will get his parole revoked if Baker pursues his attempt to blackmail and extort him.  Baker walks away disgusted with himself for taking the wrong tact with Whitten; reasoning is not his strength, but fear and intimidation are, and Baker decides to revise his approach for Alex.

The outcome of the meeting between Whitten and Baker is not surprising, as it involves the two fellows most responsible for what transpired that horrific night in 1972.  Both of these fellows are in denial about the significance of their respective roles.  Whitten gave false testimony at trial that it was Billy’s idea to go to Heathrow Heights.  He also fails to recognize that his tossing the pie at Baker escalated what would transpire.  For his part, Baker committed all of the violence that occurred, except for shooting Billy, but his vehement insistence that the armed Monroe brother shoot compounded the tragedy of that fateful night.

A theme in Pelecanos’s writing is the influential role of one’s upbringing in forming a person’s character.  As a youngster, Whitten felt that his father’s being a professional bestowed a social status upon him that set him apart from his peers.  This is likely to have been planted by his father, for, for example, after the “incident,” Peter’s father forbade him from having anything to do with Alex–as if Alex had any responsibility for what happened that night.  Also, Whitten really did not believe that others (other than himself) could learn from their mistakes and be redeemed, for when he went to warn Alex about Baker possibly trying to shake him down, he discouraged Alex from meeting with the Monroe brothers because they are criminals and unlikely to “change their stripes.”  (That meeting between Whitten and Alex was only the second time they saw each other in 35 years, the other time being at Billy’s father’s funeral.)

Charles Baker is from a broken home and was abused as a child.  A career criminal, he is always “gaming,” always looking to take from the weak and from whomever else he can con and/or intimidate.  He felt he “deserved.”   When Raymond Monroe chastises him that he’s not the only one who had a terrible childhood and that others were able to overcome the same sort of up-bringing, one can hear Pelecanos whispering between the lines: “That is easier said than done.”  Pelecanos, here and in other stories, like The Night Gardner, is troubled about how abused children become adult abusers themselves.  It’s a self-perpetuating cycle of abuse and how to break it by other than throwing the abused-child-now-adult-abuser into jail is a major challenge for society for which Pelecanos seems to suggest there is no easy solution.

In any event, any closure to be accomplished by Raymond, James and Alex has to first deal with major obstacles placed in their way by Baker.  Baker had gotten James to assist in writing the letters sent to Whitten and then to Alex.  If the police had to be called in, Raymond feared James would face jail time for his involvement in Baker’s extortion plot and that would just about do James in.  Also, Baker delivers the letter to Alex by leaving it with his son, Johnny, implying that if Alex did not pay, Baker would harm Johnny.  Alex informs Raymond and Raymond accepts responsibility for warding off Baker. Raymond does visit Baker and is quite emphatic that Baker is to leave Alex and his family alone.  As it turns out, Baker is removed as a threat due to his own disastrous attempt to make in-roads onto the turf of others, far smarter and tougher than he.

Alex, Raymond and James eventually find that they share a number of things in common.  First and foremost, they all come from solid, stable families with parents that instilled in them values of respect and hard work.  For example, Alex’s father drilled into him the necessity to “take care of the help.  They prop the place up.  Don’t ever shortchange them, hear?”  Alex, then, passes on this very same advice a generation later to his son Johnny, to prepare Johnny (who has an interest in culinary matters) to take over the diner from him.  Raymond, for his part, passed onto son and onto his soon-to-be-adopted girlfriend’s son what he learned from his father about body language: “Chin up, and keep your shoulders square…. Make eye contact, but not too long, here?  You don’t want to be challenging anyone for no good reason.  On the other hand you don’t want to look like a potential victim, either.”

Alex/Raymond/James also find that they share some of the same interests, like basketball and old-school R&B music. Having sons at risk on battlefields is another common bond shared by Raymond and Alex.  Additionally, Alex is ready to make a move away from the diner, which he will hand off to his son who is passionate about food, in a way Alex’s father was, but not Alex, and pursue something that he is passionate about.  Without giving away the details, Alex’s plans could use someone with James’s skills, and they come to realize that they can forge a mutually beneficial working relationship.

In The Turnaround, Pelecanos suggests that reconciliation can be achieved by parties discovering how much they are the same, finding the things they have in common, individually and as a people.  Alex and Raymond and James come together and eventually establish not only common bonds, but a willingness to share a common destiny and fate.  It appears that Pelecanos is preaching that the way to achieve reconciliation for past conflicts, how to achieve authentic racial harmony, is to seek out common ground, treat each other as equals and acknowledge a shared destiny and the need to work it together daily on a hands-on shoulder-to-shoulder basis.  By way of contrast, Whitten makes his contribution via arm-length hand-outs on a donor/donee basis.

Pelecanos espouses the traditional values of family and work and sacrifice.  In The Turnaround, Alex sacrificed college for the sake of his parents and the family business.  It was selfless, for he put aside his own interests for the sake of the family.  He gave over thirty years of his life for this.

Pelecanos’s story includes an example of a monumental sacrifice kept secret for thirty-five years made by one family member for the sake of another more vulnerable member.  The person who made the sacrifice knew that it would likely ruin the person’s own life, but yet willingly did it for the benefit of the more vulnerable relative.  The reader will be absolutely shocked to learn of such a great sacrifice, which is virtually unthinkable today, so averse are we generally to do something to one’s detriment for a higher purpose.

As alluded to above, reconciliation is achieved by Alex, Raymond and James.  To appreciate how specifically it is accomplished one really must read this powerful and profound book.  Pelecanos continues to be the rare voice writing about race with a sensitivity that is thoroughly real and authentic.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-4-5from 72 readers
PUBLISHER: Back Bay Books; Reprint edition (April 7, 2009)
REVIEWER: Hagen Baye
AUTHOR WEBSITE: George Pelecanos
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May 8, 2009 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: , ,  · Posted in: 2009 Favorites, Class - Race - Gender, Contemporary, Family Matters, Literary, Reading Guide, Washington, D.C.

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