THE WAY HOME by George Pelecanos

Book Quote:

“It was said by some that the juvenile system tainted everyone, employees and inmates alike.”

Book Review:

Review by Guy Savage (JAN 22, 2011)

The name George Pelecanos has been floating around in my peripheral vision for some time. He’s one of those authors whose names keep popping up, so I knew I’d check him out sooner or later.

The Way Home begins with Chris Flynn doing time in the juvenile rehabilitation centre at Pine Ridge, Maryland “about twenty-five miles from Northwest D.C.” The first section of the novel concentrates on Chris’s life at Pine Ridge and the relationships he forges with the other juvenile offenders. As the only white inmate, he’s known somewhat predictably as “white boy.” It’s a term he’s grown used to and a term he doesn’t take personally. Most of the other inmates can’t understand what Chris is doing there; they see him as an idiot for jeopardizing the advantages he has: loving, caring parents, a home, and a dog.

The plot backtracks to the path that led Chris to Pine Ridge–it’s a path of alienation from his family and truancy meshed with marijuana use & petty vandalism which escalated into crime. While Chris’s concerned parents had warning that their only child’s life was going horribly wrong, they were ill-prepared to stop him from sliding headlong into disaster. Disaster arrives suddenly and rapidly one evening when a petty incident explodes into violence and Chris is arrested, sentenced and sent to Pine Ridge. Chris’s parents, who’ve managed to stave off some of the consequences for Chris in the past, hire a lawyer, but this time Chris’s offences are too serious not to have legal consequences. Chris’s father, Thomas, owner of a carpet business is angry with his son for his actions while Chris’s mother, Amanda, finds solace in religion.

For the last two-thirds of the novel, Chris is back home and working for his father. A permanent rupture remains between the two men, and while they are both aware of the problem, neither of them seems capable of repairing their relationship. Thomas is basically a good-hearted sort, and his son’s experiences have caused him to hire a few young men from Pine Ridge. Most of them drop out, however, unable to keep straight or stay away from drugs. Ben, a young black man, one of Chris’s friends at Pine Ridge, appears to be an exception. He’s grateful for the job–although he’s discouraged at the low pay and thoughts of the future. Ben has no family, and his job with the carpet company offers him a chance at decent, albeit lowly employment. His small checks make the rent on a vermin-infested apartment, and he even has a girlfriend.

One day, Chris and Ben are sent out to replace carpet at a home, and there they make a discovery that forces them to make some tough moral choices:

“I’ve seen this movie, thought Chris. Innocent, basically good people found some money and decided to keep it, rationalizing their act because the cash belonged to no-one. The money corrupted them, and they betrayed one another and were ultimately brought down by their own greed, a basic component of their human nature that they thought they would overcome. It always ended up bad.”

The Way Home is a crime novel that explores the almost insurmountable hurdles of poverty. Chris Flynn’s life is marred by his teenage recklessness, but he’s from a family that stands by him and who are willing to help him get back into society. Chris is surrounded by young men who have no such advantages, and some of the illiterate Pine Ridge inmates are in holes so deep, there’s no way they are going to be able to dig their way out. While The Way Home is an entry in the crime genre, the novel’s main theme is the power of the family. The sub-theme is class in America’s so-called classless society. The Flynns are Middle America–hard-working people who live in an area of gentrification. Pelecanos subtly brings in the American myth that work will bring rewards, and that fortunes can be made by everyone if we just work hard enough. Chris doesn’t buy his father’s beliefs, and this explains some of his rebellion. His experiences in Pine Ridge underscore the idea that all men are not born equal, and for some “getting ahead” means taking advantage of whatever comes your way, by whatever means necessary.

There are some excellent moments here, and these are often manifested through class confrontations. At one point in the novel, Chris and Ben are employed to re-carpet a room for a middle-aged real estate agent, Mindy Kramer. She’s bought the house and is flipping it for a quick sale. She sees Ben and Chris as underlings, and she objectifies and demeans them simply because she can. At another point in the novel, Mindy continues this behaviour with waitress, Toi, who gets a steady $1.49 for her attentiveness.

While there are a few murders here, The Way Home cannot be called Hard-Boiled. The book’s underlying message occasionally wanders into sentimentality which may disturb some crime readers. Still The Way Home is highly readable and clips along at a good pace, but I, for one would have preferred this story of redemption without the gooey bits.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-4-0from 42 readers
PUBLISHER: Back Bay Books; Reprint edition (January 13, 2011)
REVIEWER: Guy Savage
AUTHOR WEBSITE: George Pelecanos
EXTRAS: Excerpt
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January 22, 2011 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: ,  · Posted in: Class - Race - Gender, Contemporary, Family Matters, Mystery/Suspense, Theme driven

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