George Pelecanos

Music and words, sign me up.

Music references in George Pelecanos’ best stuff are little gifts, indicators of reality. A band or a title triggers memories and sounds and suddenly you see more on the page, you feel it.

In “Down By The River Where The Dead Men Go,” there’s Curtis Mayfield’s “Do Be Down” as a backdrop for a bedroom scene that says it all.

There’s one reference in “The Turnaround” to Blue Oyster Cult’s “Last Days of May” and you find yourself starting the song in your mind. “Parched land, no desert sand, sun was just a dot…”

But why does “The Turnaround” fall flat? At least to these ears (I listened to this book on audio CD, brilliantly performed by Dion Graham) “The Turnaround” goes pffft.

Here’s a brief review: great opening, slow middle, even slower end. Excellent concept (though nothing new), flat delivery.

I think Pelecanos is a kid in a candy store deciding on the music references. As a community service, here are the bands I noted in “The Turnaround:” Humble Pie (“I Walk on Gilded Splinters”), James Brown (“Talking Loud, Saying Nothing,”) Wilson Pickett, Led Zeppelin, Funkadelic, Elton John, T. Rex, Alice Cooper, Argent, Martha Reeves, Stevie Wonder, The Dead, The Who, Blue Oyster Cult, Manassas, Quicksilver Messenger Service, Jethro Tull, Procol Harum, Atomic Rooster, Robert Flack, The Strokes, Thievery Corporation and Earth, Wind & Fire. I probably missed a few.

There are other good period details too that set the scene from the 1970’s sections of this book-references to Esso (gasoline stations), Mannix, Jet Magazine and Shirley Chisholm. But for long sections of “The Turnaround,” those details drop away and the novel also fades into a yawning gap. For long sections, it’s fairly lifeless and flat.

What gives? As a writer, this is a bit scary. Shouldn’t Pelecanos knows how the book flows? He’s got all the elements in place-murder, fear, lies, anxiety, retribution, anger. What was he trying to do? Maybe there should have been a disclaimer on the front: “This book does not have the edge of “Down By The River…” or the grit of “Soul Circus.” On the other hand, this is a crime book. We expect tension, we demand it. We want to sweat. Not going to happen here. The ending is a long conversation just getting to the truth of what happened “long ago.”

The music and cultural references disappear for long stretches, too. It’s as if the scenery is yanked away and the characters are left to fend for themselves on a bare stage. It doesn’t work.

Lessons learned:

  • It’s hard to stay in the moment when everybody is thinking back.
  • Don’t lose the scenery.
  • “Right now” is better than “back then.”
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