Saturday, December 21, 2013

Greek Americans and African Americans in Conflict and Solidarity

Review of George Pelecanos'
The Turnaround 

I was well into my first reading of “The Turnaround” last November when a newspaper headline demanded my attention. An Ecuadorian immigrant was brutally killed in Long Island – a hate crime. Haunted by the atrocity, I pulled away from the novel for reasons that I will explain below. Once again, one of the nation’s most harrowing dramas had played itself out. Teenagers, commonly male, banding together to hunt and hurt immigrants or minorities. Young men, most often white, bonding to harm those not conforming to racial or sexual norms. It is at night when this ritual of terror occurs. The pursuit takes place with some regularity, cruising neighborhoods in search for a target. Alcohol or drugs may be involved, conspiring with the darkness of the hour to unleash racism in its full horror. The moment when hate flashes – in the razor-sharpness of a denigrating slur, the stain of a stabbing knife, or the finality of a gunshot – the human cost is insufferable, and the scars inflicted upon those involved may take a lifetime to heal.

I felt compelled to return to the novel later that day. “The Turnaround,” you see, fictionalizes a real-life incident somewhat comparable with the one in Long Island, this time a 1972 lethal confrontation between white and African American teenagers. In Pelecanos’ fictional telling the drama takes place in an all-black community, Heathrow Heights, in Washington, D.C. Two out of the three youth who intrude into the secluded neighborhood are Greek American. Billy Cachoris is at the wheel, while Alex Pappas coils at the back, an unwilling participant. Billy and the third passenger, Pete Whitten, insult a group of local teens, inciting violent retaliation in turn. This racial incident leaves Billy shot dead, and condemns James Monroe to lengthy imprisonment, sentenced for manslaughter. Pete manages to flee the scene unharmed. Alex survives the melee, his face permanently disfigured by Charles Baker who is convicted for assault. Raymond Monroe, James’ brother, is also involved.

An act of racial domination turns deadly, but the line between the perpetrators and the victims is blurred. In the ensuing trial the court punishes the black teens who exercised physical violence, and absolves the white teens who inflicted symbolic cruelty. It can be said that the novel begins when the official investigation closes and the trial concludes. Once it establishes the specifics of the incident, the plot fast forwards more than three decades later to address how the participants, now in middle age, fare in life. The novel asks, how do human beings attend to the emotional wounds in the aftermath of violence? How do the physical survivors cope after the bloodstain in the cement has washed away, but the strain in the psyche still refuses to go away? Where can justice be found if, according to the narrator, the justice system fails to administer full justice? That November evening, when literature and reality locked in a haunting unison for me, it was to “The Turnaround” that I turned, grappling for answers.

The novel is the second installment in a $1.5 million three-book contract, a lucrative deal that underlines its author’s spectacular rise in the literary marketplace since his first appearance in the trade, in 1992. Recognized as a prominent American mystery and detective writer, and a noted television scriptwriter, Pelecanos employs fiction to critique the class and racial divide in American society. He also examines social definitions of manhood, father-son relationships, and relations between white ethnics and racial minorities. His work has attracted the attention of both highbrow and popular media, including The New Yorker, The Washington Post, The New York Times, Entertainment Weekly, and Your Flesh Quarterly, not to mention newspapers and magazines in Greek America and Greece.

“The Turnaround” retains its author’s interest in crime fiction. It features an investigation of sorts, an amateur one by Alex Pappas, which eventually solves a puzzle surrounding the killing. But the book moves beyond the conventions of the genre of detective novel. It is ultimately preoccupied with the causes of racism, the consequences of hate crime, and the possibility of inter-racial redemption.

A Washington D.C.-based writer, Pelecanos is known for illuminating those parts of the city that lay beyond a tourist’s itinerary, places of crime, despairing poverty or working class endurance. Similarly in “The Turnaround,” the sociology and the history of Heathrow Heights is critical to the story. Originally a community of relocated former slaves, Heathrow Heights strives for a modicum of civic pride under layers of abandonment, racism and scarcity. It is a place under siege, assaulted by the neglect of city officials and absentee landlords during daytime, and by racist intruders at nighttime. “To some of the middle- and working-class white teenagers of the surrounding area, who learned insecurity from their fathers,” the narrator lets out, “Heathrow Heights was the subject of ridicule, slurs, and pranks. They called it ‘Negro Heights.’” The place is devalued, and its residents face class exploitation and racial discrimination. “Calling my mother a nigger after she’s been on her feet all day, wearing that cleaning uniform of hers,” James Monroe despairs over her dual domination. “She who has never judged anyone.”

It is not unusual for the public to refer to this kind of places as ghettoes infested with social pathologies, and to blame dysfunctional families and resident passivity for inner city plight. Pelecanos refuses to succumb to this popular mythology. He is too sociologically alert, too sensitive to the complexities of race and class to allow his fiction to function as an incubator of racial stereotypes.

His answer is to portray Heathrow Heights as a diverse place, and its residents as human beings capable of both lofty achievement and petty failure. Individuals may toil to improve their lives and sacrifice themselves for others, but may also collapse under the weight of hopelessness. Ernest Monroe for instance, a family man, takes pride in his work as a bus mechanic, serving as the role model for his son James. A gas station attendant, James emulates his father’s work ethic, and aspires for middle class respectability, his ambition only to expire in the aftermath of the racial incident. Charles Baker, in contrast, the one who scars Alex Pappas’ face for life, finds himself engulfed in resentment and violence. His masculine toughness is displayed against a background of family disintegration – father’s absence and mother’s alcoholism – and the trauma of sexual molestation.

Pete, Billy, and Alex also represent different worlds. Pete, a son of a successful lawyer enjoys great class privileges, groomed for an elite college and eventually a lucrative career. To the consternation of his father he associates with ethnic peers, considering them, however, his social inferiors. In contrast, the social ambition of Billy, the son of a car salesman, and Alex, son of a diner owner, is rather limited; they are both mediocre students. But a vast gap separates them. Billy shares Pete’s condescension toward Alex. And they fundamentally differ in their racial attitudes. Billy is taught by his father to despise black people, to be afraid of them; Alex, who works at his father’s diner with an all-black crew, learns to respect them.

Despite their differences, however, Pete, Billy and Alex share an important asset. The dominant society does not judge them by the color of their skin; race does not interfere in their everyday realities. This is unlike the experience of James Monroe when he steps outside the boundaries of Heathrow Heights in search for work. As a gas station attendant, the prejudice of blacks as unreliable workers places him on a daily trial, a disadvantage he compensates for to his own detriment: “never calling in sick, even when he was sick.”

The racial divide catapults the teenagers into violent collision. Their worlds clash because their worlds are arranged hierarchically. Insulting Heathrow Heights becomes a rite of passage where white teenagers learn to exercise a sense of social and racial superiority. Humiliating the locals serves Pete as yet another occasion to assert his dominant social position. And for Billy racial abuse offers a convenient venue to assert masculine bravado.

“The Turnaround” meanders through worlds of petty crime, vicious violence and family dissolution. It offers glimpses of hypocrisy and self-interested calculation among the wealthy; hedonism among nouveau rich drug dealers; and quiet despair or angry restlessness among the underprivileged. Devoid of authenticity and meaning, these worlds spin in moral void. In juxtaposition to this vacuum, the novel offers a working- and middle-class ethic defined by hard work, care for family, immense self-sacrifice, fairness to employees, pride in professional work, and decency in social conduct. These values crosscut the racial divide, as both the Pappas and the Monroe families possess them.

The novel works as a morality tale, detailing how both families strive to keep at bay the external forces that threaten their moral fabric. But this world is fundamentally threatened by yet another force, an internal one: the racial incident that set Alex against the Monroe brothers in the past continues to divide and torment these fundamentally decent people. To overcome this racial divide a redemptive solution is necessary, a closure.

“The Turnaround” offers no in-depth exploration of the inner lives of the characters in the aftermath of the incident. Instead, the characters function as social types, standing for different resolutions to the injuries of the past. Charles Baker is consumed by rage, seeking retaliation through blackmail. In contrast, Raymond looks for reconciliation through mutual trust, an attitude that seems to also console James. The narrator merely states the posture of Pete Whitten, who pursues a successful career unaffected by the incident, still blind to the humanity of the Monroe brothers. On the contrary, Alex builds a relation of trust with Raymond, acknowledging his culpability in the incident. The narrator leaves no doubt as to Alex’s regret: “Alex could have demanded that Billy stop the car. He knew that what they were about to do was wrong. He’d let it happen. Because of his inaction, many lives had been broken.”

In the figure of Alex, the author construes a Greek American hero who refuses to forget inter-racial conflict in the past and who initiates action to restore injustice in the present. He is portrayed as a dreamer, who invests in solidarity between Greek Americans and African Americans.

“The Turnaround” navigates an uncharted terrain in Greek American history, doing so from a unique vantage point. Instead of focusing on ethnicity alone, it concentrates on race relations. It thus demonstrates that in addition to ethnicity, racial issues also shape Greek American lives. In this respect, it rings a bell for artists, researchers, and educators. It signals that cultural and historical renderings of Greek America will remain one-sided unless one situates Greek America in the wider landscape of U.S. racial relations. In other words, the novel cautions against speaking about ethnicity as if ethnicity is a self-contained entity insulated from wider national issues. And race, Pelecanos reminds us, has been such an issue, a harrowing one.

One wishes however, that “The Turnaround” probed deeper into the race-issues that it raises. One is struck, for example, by how sparingly its characters reflect on racial prejudice, a process that so decisively stains their lives. Whatever little Alex and Raymond let out on how racism infiltrates lives is simplistic, inchoate. Even Alex, the only character drawn to reading shows no interest in probing the topic. When he is called by Raymond to account for the incident, Alex’s explanation is offensively timid; and his defense of Billy rings as unconvincing, a cliché: “I really believe that [Billy] would have turned out fine.” But, really, how can we tell?

Furthermore, the novel is shy in addressing the multifaceted ways in which race may still be an issue in the multicultural present. For socially underprivileged African Americans such as Charles and yet another black character, Deon, race matters; stepping outside their circles and into the world of expensive establishments and stores is an uncomfortable reminder of their social and racial marginality. But what about Raymond? Because “The Turnaround” does not chart his transition from inner city to middle class respectability it is as if his racial identity and underprivileged background ceased to be a factor in the aftermath of the incident. Does the novel imply that race no longer matters in the lives of educated, middle-class blacks such as Raymond, particularly those who have escaped inner city? If so, a more upfront treatment would have been necessary to engage with this highly contested political issue.

Last but not least, a related question: Alex and Raymond find themselves connected in what seems an equal relationship. Championing hard work, enjoying meaningful relationships, building on the possibility of redemption and healing the wounds of the past, both enter middle life contently, contemplating the potential for further fulfillment. But there is an economical asymmetry between the two. Unlike Raymond, Alex owns commercial property. It is this asset that affords James an opportunity to set up his own auto-repair business in partnership with Alex, making possible inter-racial redemption. The novel acknowledges the economic asymmetry between Alex and Raymond but abstains from exploring it head-on. Was race a factor in this inequality? Historians argue that working- and middle-class white ethnics were afforded far greater opportunities than their African American counterparts. As a work concerned with the effects of the racial past in the present, “The Turnaround” owes a more substantive look on how Alex’s past positions him as economically superior to Raymond. One only hopes that Pelecanos, a writer so much invested in exploring the racial divide, will tackle these delicate issues in future work.

Yiorgos Anagnostou

Originally printed in The National Herald, Vol. 12 (611), June 27, 2009:7.

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