George Pelecanos is probably best known for his work with David Simon on the TV drama The Wire and now as co-creator of Simon’s new show The Deuce. As befits those sprawling, socially driven pieces of television, Pelecanos writes in a similar style, his gritty crime novels being as interested in the milieu as in the characters that inhabit it.
Billed as a crime novel, the real crime doesn’t actually kick in during The Way Home until half way through. Instead, Pelecanos explores themes that will be familiar to fans of his television writing – juvenile crime, alienation, redemption and the nature of identity.
His focus is the experiences of young American men who have come through the juvenile detention system. The Way Home is the story of Chris Flynn, a white middle-class boy from Washington with everything ahead of him, who ends up in juvenile prison for a thoughtless crime. His father, Thomas, is broken hearted, but on release, Chris, and another ex-prisoner starts working for Thomas’s carpet-laying business, a far cry from the college educated future once planned for him.
Life seems to be back on track for Chris. He has steady work, a girlfriend and his own apartment, but things take a turn in the wrong direction when he and his partner stumble across $50,000 hidden under the floorboards of an empty house in which they are working. The decision they make on whether or not to take the money drives the rest of the novel, both in terms of the fall-out from that decision and in terms of Chris’s difficult relationship with his father, who has always seen his son’s life as a way to right the wrongs that marred his own life.
As it stands then, The Way Home is less a thriller and more a character study with a social conscience. It is written in a factual, journalistic style and if at times, it can veer towards the polemic, there is enough concern for the characters to bring it back from that edge.
The early section of the novel, detailing Chris’s youthful spiral into drugs and small time violence perfectly captures the sullenness and thoughtlessness of adolescence. Chris does what he does because he doesn’t care enough not to.
When he gets to juvenile detention though – the only white boy in a predominantly black lower class facility – the choices he has made appear lazy and pointless, given all that he had to lose. By turning his back on the promise of his upbringing, Chris is brought face to face with the reality of life for people who never had that promise in the first place.
The Way Home is striking in its exploration of the choices available to a certain class of young person in the United States and the thin line that certain people have to tred between crime and salvation.
The book also excels in its’ exploration of the pain and the power of paternal love. Chris has never been mistreated by his father, but the need to live up to Thomas’ expectations has made him rebel. Thomas loves his son, but has difficulty expressing it and is stifled by the loss of a baby girl before Chris was born. Thomas sees his son behaving as he himself did as a young man, and rather than use that recognition to understand Chris, he uses it to berate him. When Thomas realises that his son is in real danger, a return to the code words they used together in the past, marks a redemptive change in their relationship.
The Way Home could have been a very standard tale of conscience, redemption and the relationship between fathers and sons, but George Pelecanos has a very clear-eyed way of looking at the issues facing young men in society today that keeps his novel fresh and riveting. The second half of the novel ratchets up the tension incredibly well driving relentlessly towards the conclusion.
The concentration on how the smallest of decisions can change a life forever and how pitiless society can be to its more vulnerable members, mean Pelecanos has created a stark, thoughtful read that is reminiscent of the television writing for which he is rightly winning so much acclaim.
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