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The Turnaround    by George Pelecanos Amazon.com order for
Turnaround
by George Pelecanos
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Back Bay, 2009 (2008)
Hardcover, Paperback, CD, e-Book
* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

George Pelecanos' The Turnaround begins with tragedy, the violence that erupts after three white teens close friends Billy Cachoris and Pete Whitten, and Alex Pappas (who tends to tag along with the others) - drive into the black Heathrow Heights neighborhood of Washington, D.C., high on beer and weed and looking for trouble. They get it too, big time! Though one runs away and so remains unscathed, another is killed and Alex Pappas left scarred for life.

The other half of this equation of violence is filled by three black teens - Charles Baker who's prone to violence, and two brothers, James and Raymond Monroe. Alex Pappas and the Monroes are good kids, well brought up in hardworking families with similar values. Alex's dad, John Pappas, runs a coffee shop (really a diner) and treats his black employees well. Ernest Monroe is a D.C. Transit bus mechanic and his elder son James works hard at a gas station, plans to take a mechanics class, and dreams of some day owning his own garage.

The puzzle of what exactly happened that terrible day in Heathrow Heights pulls the reader's interest through the story of the participants' later lives. When we meet Alex again, he's running the Pappas and Sons Coffee Shop with help from his elder son (the younger died in Iraq.) Raymond is a physical therapist at Walter Reed. His wife died of breast cancer and his son is overseas in Afghanistan. Raymond is in a new relationship with fellow worker Kendall. After serving jail time, James works for low pay as a mechanic and drinks more than he should. Charles has been in and out of prison. He still seeks - and finds - trouble.

George Pelecanos empathetically weaves all these skeins into an absorbing, engaging read, slowly building the suspense to a remarkably satisfying ending, one that offers the turnaround that his two main characters (Alex and Raymond) have long sought. Along the way, he makes telling comments about society's current attitude to those who serve their country, as when Kendall asks, 'They're supposed to forget that there's a war. No coffins, no dead. I wasn't around and neither were you, but didn't this whole country contribute and sacrifice during World War Two?'

Pelecanos has a way of telling tales that make you sad because they center on kernels of truth - even if the names have changed, readers know that the things he portrays happened or are happening out there somewhere. He does it again in The Turnaround, a gripping, thought-provoking novel that I highly recommend to you.

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