Once again using the ethnic neighborhoods of Washington, D.C., to explore issues of class and race, and the possibility of bridging those gulfs, Pelecanos (The Night Gardener, 2006, etc.) constructs a taut narrative in which the past exerts a seismic pull on the present.
The backdrop of the story sends three white teenagers on a reckless 1972 joyride into a black neighborhood, alcohol undermining their better judgment, as they shout racial epithets that ignite retaliation. Black or white, everyone involved finds his life changed (and one ended) because of a mindless clash and its escalation. It isn’t until 35 years later that Alex Pappas, who inherited the family’s coffee shop from his father and hopes to pass it along to his son, is able to try to reconcile the past with the present, to discover what really happened on that night, to come to terms, to move on. Alex was the boy who had been most reluctant to participate in that fatal joyride, yet he went along rather than resisting. As a surprise visit reopens old wounds, the question is whether a boyhood mistake will continue to haunt him, or whether he can lay the ghosts of the past to rest. “Whatever you did before doesn’t matter,” says a character. “What matters now is how you make the turnaround.” Pelecanos shows the distinction between those capable of making that turnaround and those who can’t, while exploring a common humanity that goes deeper than differences of skin color and home turf. Between black and white, there are many shades of gray.
Like his kindred spirits who have also written scripts for HBO’s The Wire, Pelecanos deserves the sort of popular breakthrough that Richard Price and Dennis Lehane have enjoyed.