Friday, May 7, 2010

Black and white

Ahem! This month's Dion Graham fan club meeting will come to order! I had some high expectations for The Turnaround: I've been reading some of the work of The Wire's screenwriters lately, and while most of them are a little too hard-edged for me (I can take my TV raw-ish, but generally not my reading), I'd wanted to read something by George Pelecanos. When I realized that Dion Graham had narrated one of his novels, I decided to give it a listen.

The Turnaround is the story of Alex Pappas. He's a mostly bored 16-year-old white kid during the summer of 1972, and one hot night -- with two other friends -- he goes for a joyride into the largely African American neighborhood known as Heathrow Heights. After tossing a cherry pie out the car window and yelling a racial slur, the three boys attempt to burn rubber and get out of there, but they run into a dead end (the titular turnaround). Alex and his friend (the third boy has left the car and run away) face two brothers, James and Raymond Monroe, and a third black teen, Charles Baker. Something horrific happens, and Alex is greviously wounded and scarred.

Some 30 years later, Alex is now running his deceased father's beloved Greek diner; while Ray Monroe has become a physical therapist and works at Walter Reed Army Medical Center helping to rehabilitate wounded vets from the Iraq war. Both are fathers -- Alex's younger son has recently died in Iraq, while Ray's is serving in Afghanistan. One day, Ray spots Alex at Walter Reed and -- recognizing him by his scar -- approaches him. As the two men get to know one another, the novel slowly spools out what has happened in the intervening years, including what really happened that night in Heathrow Heights.

While there's lots of violence and plenty of bad and hateful language, I am surprised at how moral the story seems. There isn't much gray area in this story. The bad guys come off a bit cartoony in their evil, and the good are flawed but not too terribly. The upbeat ending is seriously cheerful. My Wire-d expectations made me think that Pelecanos' novelistic world would be a slightly more cynical one -- there's no good and bad, just less and more bad.

Dion Graham gets to create a broad range of characters here -- from all ages, races and classes. (The book falls a little short on women, but I do like the fine portrait Graham creates for Darlene, a black woman Alex's age who has spent her life working in the Pappas and Sons diner. She's sassy and soft-spoken and her affection for Alex is palpable in her voice.) I appreciate the subtleties of the various speech patterns of the African American characters: educated men, ex-cons, streetwise punks, young drug dealers as well as their bosses (here I swear Graham was channeling Stringer Bell but that's my Wire-d worldview), working class kids, even a young Wizards fan. He's equally skilled with the white characters: Alex with his tired raspy delivery, his friend who became a highly paid and smug lawyer, his son John who wants to take over and upgrade the diner, wounded soldiers from all over the U.S., and two brilliant riffs as Mick Jagger and a Top 40 D.J.

Particularly memorable are several scenes in the car as Alex and his friends head out on that fateful joyride that comprise vivid, rapid-fire teen-boy conversations (sex, drugs and rock and roll) that Graham pulls off with skill.

The Turnaround is one of those audiobooks where I wish that obtaining music copyright wasn't such an onerous task for the publishers. The novel is filled with music references and since I am mostly ignorant of the music of this era (and yes, it is my era ... but, hey! I was interested in other things), I would have so enjoyed little excerpts that might have served to remind me of a song or two. Graham does a little singing: The theme from Mannix [Did someone film that by pointing their camera at the TV? Don't these people have lives?]. The show is the Monroe brothers' father's favorite television show -- remember, it featured a black woman. Well, that gave me childhood flashbacks.

And also, just to be difficult, thoughts on copyright. Obviously copying something off the television and posting it on YouTube is a copyright violation. So is inserting musical excerpts to augment your audiobook. But if Graham hums the theme from Mannix or a sings a Rolling Stones song because it is in the text of a book, is that a violation of copyright? As we say in the library biz, I can't provide legal advice ...

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