The Turnaround

Issue section: 

George Pelecanos, Orion, £12.99

The Turnaround shows how just 15 minutes of someone's life can dominate the next 35 years. The story begins in the racially charged atmosphere of 1972 Washington DC. Three white youths, Alex Pappas, Billy Cachoris and Peter Whitten, decide to drive into a rough black neighbourhood shouting racial epithets at its inhabitants. In their joyriding ecstasy they mistakenly drive into a dead end street to escape a group of teenagers who chase them. When their car is surrounded, one manages to run away, another is disfigured for life and the third is shot dead. This is the 15 minutes.

During the next 35 years this event overshadows the lives of the characters in the story. Alex Pappas, still bearing the scars he received in those 15 minutes, takes over from his father's diner and Peter Whitten goes the way of the white petty bourgeois, becoming a lawyer. However, it is when the black characters, Charles Baker and brothers Raymond and James (who were mostly imprisoned for the events earlier), return to the fray that this novel really takes wings.

Charles Baker returns to demand molecular "reparations" from Peter Whitten and Alex Pappas, threatening their families and semi-cosy existences. Charles Baker is not just simply a murderer, but a murderer explained. Pelecanos goes to great lengths to show Baker's thought processes; his life and these are among the most chilling passages in the novel.

It is only at the surprising end of the novel that the reader realises this is not simply a classic crime novel, though it shares the features of the genre, such as the presentation of a puzzle that at first dazzles, but through a succession of events and explanations becomes clear to the reader.

This novel stands out because the real hero and detective in this novel is Washington DC itself and in particular its working class population. Pelecanos shows with meticulous literary care all the faces of the US working class - black, white and, more recently in larger numbers, Latinos. You see how it has organically coexisted, developed and simply survived over the last 35 years.

Just as Dickens gave literary expression to the lives of the powerless in the most powerful city in the world, 19th century London, George Pelecanos too arguably has achieved the same feat in Washington. However, Pelecanos is perhaps a Dickens with a difference. In The Turnaround, or his other work in The Wire, you will not find prostrate oppressed characters that have simply been battered down by 30 years of neoliberalism. You may find the occasional resignation but there is always resilience, intelligence and, most of all, hope. These elements are not thrown together but beautifully combined in the prose and dialogue that may yet make The Turnaround a modern classic.