Wednesday, February 10, 2010

The Way Home by George Pelecanos

Folks who've read this blog before know my love of George Pelecanos. He's basically my favorite serious crime writer. I can't quite remember at this point whether I discovered him because he wrote for The Greatest Work of Dramatic Art Of The Last Fifteen Years or whether I loved it quite so much because he wrote for it, but either way, when I read his work, I hear the rhythms and world of The Wire. That's a good thing, if you ask me.

While The Wire was set in Baltimore, Pelecanos' work is almost exclusively set a bit up I-95, on the streets of Washington, D.C. Pelecanos is a native and is obviously in love with his city. We hear a lot about half-smokes, go-go music, and WPGC. He's actually a music fanatic, name dropping 70s soul and 80s punk with equal ease. And muscle cars. His characters love their cars.

One of the great things that he does is draw a picture of the city through time, showing us the slums of Southeast, rough streets of Petworth, the upscale neighborhoods of Georgetown and Prince George's County, Maryland, moving in and out of the lives of black and white characters with equal skill. Honestly, most of my very warm feelings for Washington, D.C. are the result of reading his books. When I'm busy, and running around the city, I love to mentally take a trip down to the Capitol and see how life is for hard-drinking cops and detectives and hard-eyed drug dealers and enforcers.

After reading his latest, The Way Home, though, I might take a bit of a break. It's a beautiful, heartbreaking and compelling novel, but it was one of the hardest reads I've had in a while. It's not exactly a rejection of the standards of the crime novel, but it's close. This skillful story makes the stories that came before seem so much smaller.

Like most genre writers, Pelecanos has his theme and devices that he returns to over and over again: black-white relations, usually embodied in a pair of old friends; normal, law-abiding citizens caught up in bad situations; hard drug boys who are trying to get out of the life; borderline (and often over the line) sociopaths cutting swaths through the city. His plots are relatively simple, and have the feeling of good drama: an inexorable march to a violent conclusion. Forces are arrayed against each other, more often due to bad blood than just a pile of money or drugs. The violence can be sudden and shocking. The Way Home is actually fairly bloodless, with a significantly lower body count that his other work. Yet it's so much more shocking.

What's shocking, and different about this novel, more than most crime novels I read is the world that these characters live in, the space they inhabit. Generally, crime novels are full of, well, criminals. Bad, bad people who break the law for a living. Pelecanos excels at making us feel how human they still are, how their lives led them to a life of crime. He loves his soft-eyed young boys, who never really want to be in the life, but have no other choice. Sometimes they manage to right their wrongs. Often they die in a hail of gunfire. Even his heroes live in a twilight world; they drink too much, are willing to break the law, bend the truth and are often looking to kill rather than arrest. They live in the same hard world as the drug boys. It's unforgiving but they're rarely looking for forgiveness.

And they almost always make bad choices and have to deal with the consequences. In one of my favorite books of his, King Suckerman, Marcus Clay, the generally righteous owner of an independent record store, walks into a small-time drug deal with a friend and winds up walking out with $20,000 of drug money he doesn't even want. It puts him on a collision course with a deadly ex-con, leading to a shootout on a rooftop during the 4th of July fireworks. In The Sweet Forever, an appliance installer grabs a bag of drug money out of a car wreck and winds up unbelievably tortured by dealers. Again, these streets are unforgiving and the smallest mistake can trip you up. But greed and pride are hard to resist.

The characters in The Way Home are different, though. Oh, we still have a pile of money. And we still have a pair of hard ex-cons, tattooed and violent. We have a "salt-and-pepper" team, a white guy and a black guy. There are drugs, prostitutes, the friction between gentrification and the lower-middle classes, lots of tough-guy posturing. All the pieces of a classic crime novel.'s a bit off. And that gap is where the brilliance comes in.

The Way Home centers around Chris Flynn, a young man from a solid, middle-class home in a slightly upscale neighborhood. His father is a business owner, his mother is religious and doting and, at the beginning of the novel, Chris is a juvenile delinquent. There's no real explanation for it, no abusive home, no single bad event that knocked him off track. But he is solidly off. When one series of bad choices lands him in a juvenile boys' home, he begins to realize where this road goes, and gets off of it. He winds up working with one of his best friends for his father, not quite excelling, but not sliding back. His other friends from juvie have also managed to pull their lives together. The first third of the novel details the life Chris and his friends lead, the things they did to wind up in juvie and how they survive after. For a long while, it almost seems like it will be a crime novel without any crime. But there's always a crime.

Except there's kind of not. Not at all. Chris and Ben, while doing a carpet installation for his father, find a bag of cash hidden under the floorboards. 50 grand. They think about taking it...and then don't. Chris is sure that it will bring no good. His friend Ben, in harder staits than Chris, wants it, but abides by Chris' counsel. Again, it seems like trouble has been averted. It hasn't. The money is taken and the actual owners want it back. And they are willing to do just about anything to get it. Before you know it, there is violence, blood, and cruelty.

And it's all more shocking because these young men are trying hard to stay out of trouble. They were all on a path that led nowhere, kids in juvie, junior jailbirds, but they all worked to get off, helped each other stay straight. Even the ones on the edge do deal drugs, like you would expect. Their prospects aren't great, but they stay straight. And still trouble finds them. And it's devastating when it does.

You're not supposed to tear up from a crime novel, but this one got me. You want to believe that these young men have found a way home, want to hope that there's a way out for them, but when you realize that, for some, there was never really any escape, and even good choices aren't enough, it breaks your heart.

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