If you’ve never read a George Pelecanos novel, stop what you’re doing right now and find a copy of The Night Gardener. That most excellent 2006 crime epic — a riveting whodunit that doubles as a wide-angle portrait of urban America — is Pelecanos at his melancholy best. Unfortunately, his wan new novel, The Turnaround, is Pelecanos at his most sentimental and mediocre.
One fateful night, three white teens take a drunken joyride into a poor black section of Washington, D.C. One of them throws a Hostess cherry pie at a group of local kids and shouts the N-word. A gun is fired, a young man dies, another goes to prison (though perhaps not the right one), and Alex Pappas, a 16-year-old Greek-American boy, is beaten so savagely that his face is permanently scarred.
Thirty-five years later, the incident still haunts everyone involved, though they are now men in late middle age. Pappas runs the humble D.C. coffee shop he inherited from his father and plans to pass on to his older son. His younger son recently died in combat in Iraq. Similarly, Raymond Monroe, one of the African-American kids from the long-ago skirmish, has a son now fighting in Afghanistan. Pelecanos wants us to understand that they are brothers under the skin — honest workingmen and devoted fathers despite their misguided early conflict.
So ebony and ivory really can work together in perfect harmony. If only there weren’t bad apples like Charles Baker, Monroe’s childhood companion who has aged into a bitter sadist still hoping for the big criminal score, and still angling for a way to profit from the decades-old tragedy. Among his less appealing traits: a fondness for threatening his male adversaries with rape. But he’d be a much more intriguing character if Pelecanos didn’t explain away all his rough edges (and sexual urges) with a perfunctory backstory so trite, unconvincing, and overused that you can probably guess exactly what it is. This kind of reductive storytelling doesn’t meet the standards Pelecanos set for himself with the marvelous Night Gardener. What? You haven’t read it yet? What did I tell you to do? C+