Saturday, August 9, 2008

George Pelecanos's THE TURNAROUND

Two summers ago I finally caught up with George Pelecanos's work. And I mean, CAUGHT UP. I spent the entire summer reading nothing but Pelecanos, capping it all off with the The Night Gardener, which came out that September. Aside from Elmore Leonard, I've never read more books by a single author, and Leonard's career stretches back fifty years.

Yeah, I'm a bit of a fan.

And yes, I also consider myself a bit of an authority. (What do you want from me? I'm The Nerd, for Christ's sakes!)

The Turnaround begins in Washington D.C. in 1972. We follow teenager Alex Pappas and his two friends Pete Whitten and Billy Cachoris as they get high and drive looking for trouble. We also look in on a group of black kids that includes young hot head Ray Monroe, his responsible gear head older brother James, and a badass from a broken home named Charles Baker. These six boys eventually have a confrontation which proves fatal for one of them. The story then switches to thirty-five years later and we see how that fateful day changed the survivors. Drugs, blackmail, and murder all rear their ugly heads.

The makings of a perfectly good crime novel, right?

Well, sort of. There are many things to love about Pelecanos. How alive his D.C. seems on the page. His cinematic violence. His spare, hip writing style. The way he weaves important social themes into his entertaining novels (this book has quite a bit in it about soldiers returning or not returning from Afghanistan and Iraq). But what I've always marveled at is his ability to tell an exciting, violent story in such a small, organic way.

The Turnaround doesn't feature any organized crime figures, cops, the FBI, or any other sexy, larger-than-life sort of thing. It's just people, people you can recognize from your own life maybe, who get thrown in a violent situation. There are no out-of-the-blue twists, no insane coincidences or many of the other things that we've come to expect from crime novels. Just a situation, characters, and a resolution.

Yet through all of the authenticity and attention to detail, Pelecanos still manages to entertain in that primal way that crime fans love. You still get the cool dialogue, the badass characters doing badass shit, the shocking violence, and even a couple plot twists. They just don't feel as forced is they do in so many novels.

In other words, The Turnaround is Pelecanos at his best.

Last week I did a piece on Ray Banks's Saturday's Child where I discussed "organic" storytelling in crime thrillers. Here is another example from a man who has perfected the form. The Turnaround is smart, realistic, redemptive and moving enough for lovers of mainstream literature while violent, dark and exciting enough for crime readers. In other words, I would reccomend it to anyone who reads books, simple as that.

Here's hoping I don't have to wait another two whole years for another taste. Though if he were working on something of the same caliber as The Wire I suppose I'd get over the long wait right quick.

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