Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Book Review Club: The Way Home by George Pelecanos

(Here is my September contribution to Barrie Summy's Book Review Club)

The thing to remember when you read George Pelecanos's latest novel, The Way Home, is this: it could happen to you.

Now, you may be thinking "hey, I don't live near the inner city, the setting for so many of his novels so I don't think so." Or you may be thinking "Yeah, I live in those types of neighborhoods and there ain't no book gonna capture what I live with every day." Okay, those things are probably both true. But Pelecanos gets you as close as you want to get with the real life.

Since so many of Pelecanos's themes revolve around race, it's important to note that the main character, Chris Flynn, is white, raised in a well-to-do white family in a well-to-do neighborhood far removed from the African-Americans of inner city DC. No matter. Chris makes a series of bad decisions and lands himself in a juvenile detention facility, the only white. About the only thing that keeps him from getting his ass kicked every day are the exploits that got him in there. He's stoic about his life and his predicament while his father, Thomas, safe at home, feels like a failure. Oh, and Thomas is the type of dad who can't talk to his son and, thus, misunderstands just about everything Chris does or says.

Cut to the future: Chris is out of prison and is working for his father's carpet laying business. He's convinced his dad to hire some of his fellow "graduates" and, while things are difficult, they're not untenable. Chris has a girl, he's trying to turn over a new leaf and succeeds, mostly, not that his dad notices. The problem occurs when Chris and another man, Ben, find a bag of cash ($50,000) under the floorboards of a house. Chris and Ben do the right thing and leave it but Ben talks to Lawrence, another graduate but one a little farther off the main street of life. Various miscommunication ensues, guys don't talk to other guys, and it all boils over when the true owners of the money come looking for it. Then, Chris, his dad, and all his friends find out what they're made of.

One of the great traits of Pelecanos's writing is his ability to make you feel empathy for just about anyone in his story, even some of the more brutal characters. Not the owners of the money--they're pretty dang awful and easy to root against. What I'm referring to is a character like Lawrence. He's had a bad childhood, not many chances in life, and when it came time to make a decision about anything, he made the wrong one. Lawrence is the type of young man that most of us, frankly, would cross the street to avoid. In Pelecanos's hands, however, Lawrence becomes someone you can understand. He's a product of his environment and he's where he is because of it. Chris *was* a product of his own environment until he went off the straight and narrow and landed himself in the company of guys like Lawrence. It could happen to any one of us. That's the point I think Pelecanos makes with this book.

The Way Home, while not preachy, is an issue book. Pelecanos makes the case via his characters for a different type of juvenile justice system, one that promotes rehabilitation and education over punishment. As one character in the story says, until he went to prison, he wasn't educated. Prison taught him all he needed to know. Reading between the lines, prison created a monster. Granted, this character is a monster and had it in him all along, but prison exacerbated the character flaws.

I'm a dad and a son and I found lots of "Yeah" moments in the book. My dad and I have a much better relationship that Chris and Thomas Flynn. But there were moments of genuine emotion that flooded from the book into my heart. Yeah, that's a bit weepy but it's true. The book is filled with emotion, honest feelings about family and one's way in life. Sooner or later, you'll find your way home. Of that, Pelecanos has no doubt. The only issue to deal with is how you get there.

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Cullen Gallagher said...

Spot-on review, Scott. I agree completely about the sympathy for all of his characters. There aren''t traditional delineations of "good" and "bad," or "hero" and "villain." Everyone is just a piece of a much bigger puzzle.

Jenn Jilks said...

Nice review. I recently read a book and really didn't care what happened to the characters. It lays so flat.

Father-son relationships are incredibly interesting to me, too.

Charles Gramlich said...

the father son dynamic here sounds like a recipe for disaster, or for a good novel!

pattinase (abbott) said...

Sounds great, Scott.

Barrie said...

Scott, what a wonderful review. I've never read anything by George Pelecanos, and this review makes me want to read one straight away! BTW, I changed the link to this review.

Scott Parker said...

Cullen - Thanks for the props. I'll admit that this book didn't capture me at first. As I went along, however, I really got into it.

Jenn - It's hard to read/like a book when you don't care about the characters. And the father/son dynamic is now more interesting as I am both.

Charles - Here, the dynamics makes you slap your forehead at some parts and cheer at others. Just like real life.

Patti - Pelecanos has yet to truly disappoint me.

Barrie - Thanks for the link change. I think I'll keep all the book review club entries here at this blog so you don't have to change the link on your end. BTW, enjoyed the Perry Mason review. Up next for me is Perry Mason #2: The Case of the Sulky(?) Girl.

Barrie said...

Scott, are you seriously reviewing a Perry Mason book? I can't wait! Are you also, by any chance, a Rex Stout fan? Also, I'll leave the link so that it comes to this blog. But, I'm happy to change it back and forth if that works for you. :)