Thursday, August 07, 2008
George Pelecanos, The Turnaround
The new Pelecanos novel builds slowly, delineating the consequences of the characters' bad choices 30 years in the past, through the first half of The Turnaround. In the last half, the pace picks up as the narrator brings to the fore the consequences of current bad choices.The narrative voice is vintage Pelecanos, a blend of interior monologues by the characters and a particular narrative point of view, a moral center within the mayhem and potential disaster that the characters are going through. It's both aspects of the narrative voice that make the author a distinctive voice in crime fiction today: the characters speak, in their dialogue as well as those interior monologues, in believable, class-conscious voices. And the narrator himself speaks with an ethical voice that passes judgment on what the characters are saying, doing, and thinking. There's no irony here: when a character lies, the narrator points it out. There's a sharp contrast between this style of writing and, for example, John McFetridge, who is on my mind because I recently read his two published novels set in Toronto (and placed as firmly there as Pelecanos's novels are placed in DC). McFetridge's narrator is not always ironic, in that the reader is not always privy to information that the characters are not (though the characters are busy concealing that information from us and from each other). But the story is carried by the voices themselves, rather than being balanced by a narrative voice providing a moral center. The result of the difference is that McFetridge keeps the reader off balance and builds considerable humor into the structure. Pelecanos lets us know what's going on and where it's all going, and only includes humor in the by-play among characters when they're joking with each other: he's otherwise serious about what's happening and what sort of lesson or conclusion should be drawn from what's happening. I mentioned bad choices, and that is frequently Pelecanos's focus, but always within a social context that explains (without excusing) the bad choices. Where The Turnaround departs from Pelecanos's previous work is in the pattern of violence: Most of his previous novels ultimately turn to revenge, exacted explicitly and violently at the conclusion, and with a clear line between the good guys and the bad guys, though each may be equally violent. The Turnaround is more ambiguous, which I'll get to in a minute. In my previous post, I mentioned the maleness of the narrative (another contrast with McFetridge, whose female characters are among his most interesting creations, always central to the story), and there's also a working-class focus: Pelecanos includes characters from all walks of life, but he's most interested in working people, and those who are struggling up into the working class. He tends to treat some groups as clueless, among them the wealthy and particular social types, including (in The Turnaround) a tendency to characterize Asians as shopkeepers who won't meet the eye of their customers. The result is an intensity of focus that drives the story relentlessly forward, and perhaps drives some readers away (those excluded, caricatured, or not interested in the ethical/moral center of the novels). That, I think, is one source of the tendency these days to say that Pelecanos is not so much a crime novelist as a novelist: he has perhaps sacrificed some segments of a mass audience in order to intensify the allegorical quality of the drama (no accident that one of his most recent--and best--novels is called Drama City, a title that is not just a joke about DC the city). The Turnaround is about a group of white youths who make a racist choice, to drive through a black neighborhood taunting a group of black youths standing innocently on a corner. The white boys' car reaches a dead end and they have to turn around to confront those they wanted to torment. Thirty years later, the black kids are suffering from the results of their own bad choice (beating one of the white kids and killing another), while the surviving white kids are now 50-ish and marked by the event in subtler ways. The plot is one of Pelecanos's most interesting (though I have to say I think the two previous books, Drama City and The Night Gardener, are his best novels so far, as complete pieces of work). When two of the black men approach the two white men for very different reasons, moral dilemmas give way to more immediate consequences. There are also side plots involving one of the black men who is attempting to take over a drug-distribution network, the families of the two central characters (one of the white men, Alex, who has carried on his family diner business but has lost a son in Iraq, and Ray, one of the black men, who has become a physical therapist at Walter Reed Army Hospital, both thus drawing the war and its consequences into the story). Toward the end, Alex is measuring a windowless building that he owns that, in other Pelecanos novels, would have been a killing floor where the characters already headed for collision would have met in violence: but in this case becomes something else: a turnaround for the characters and for the author (not to mention a late surprise, in a more "crime fiction" fashion that the book has up to that point prepared us for). The novel that begins with a death does indeed end in death, but at arms' length rather than first hand, from the central characters' point of view, though in plain and explicit view of the reader. Divine revenge, perhaps, in an unlikely form, with victims that belatedly call forth some sympathy--though Pelecanos is careful to invoke the neutrality of God with regad to human violence and war. This is the first of Pelecanos's novels to be published after the end of The Wire, the amazing HBO series that he was involved in as a writer. And some of the complexity of The Wire in plot and vision has affected the novelist. That change was perhaps reflected in the unresolved quality of the ending of his previous novel's serial killer plot, but is here reflected in different kind of resolution. And as always, there are echoes of the early novels in specific details (like a stereo shop) that make Pelecanos's work not only a portrait of working-class Washington DC and environs, but also a detailed personal universe.