There is much to recommend about “The Way Home,” Washington writer George Pelecanos‘ latest novel. Not least because Mr. Pelecanos has the gift — and believe me it is a great gift — of being able to write dialogue in distinct voices. If one could view Mr. Pelecanos‘ dialogue as a music score, it would resemble chamber music or jazz instead of the single-note monotone typical of too much current fiction.
Mr. Pelecanos also writes about what he knows. The book is set largely in the District of Columbia. And unlike so many parachute novelists who think they can write about Washington but can’t, Mr. Pelecanos understands the city and its denizens. He eschews writing about “official” Washington with its self-important panjandrums and glad-handing politicians and concentrates on people whose caricatures aren’t mounted on the walls at the Palm.
His characters are the sort of folks you run into at Rodman’s or Magruder’s. Thomas and Amanda Flynn live in upper Northwest. Tom, who once spent a short time as a D.C. Metro cop, runs Flynn’s Floors out of their Livingston Street house. He’s a self-made man. “Flynn looked in the mirror and saw what others saw, a guy who went to work every day, who took care of his family, who made what would always be a modest living and would pass on, eventually, without having made a significant mark.”
The Flynns have a teenage son named Chris who, we discover as the book opens, is serving time at a juvenile detention facility in the far reaches of Anne Arundel County, Md. We see, watching like flies on the wall, how pained they are to visit him in jail. Mr. Pelecanos also shows us from the get-go that there is a huge emotional chasm between father and son even though we sense that in many ways they are alike.
Ostensibly, Chris doesn’t give a darn. The youngster thinks of himself as Bad Chris. Bad Chris is good-looking, athletic and aggressive, an attitude that is intensified by beer and marijuana. He’s serving time for assault, drug possession and leading the police on a wild chase during which an innocent bystander was injured.
The prison is called Pine Ridge, “a dozen units housing offenders of various degrees of criminality. The most violent boys, those convicted of second degree murder and manslaughter, and sexual offenders, who were few, were housed together in Unit 12. That they were designated with the highest number, putting them by implication at the top of the pecking order, was a distinction not lost on the other inmates.”
Chris has been assigned to Unit 5, where he is the only white inmate. His fellow prisoners include Ben Braswell, “a big, dark-skinned boy with the soulful eyes who … had stolen many cars and had been caught one too many times.” And Ali Carter, “smooth-skinned and handsome, with a swollen upper body built by doing push-ups in his cell and dips whenever he could. … Ali was in on an armed robbery conviction.” And Lawrence Newhouse. “Lawrence was stupid running to illiterate, unnecessarily abrasive at times but not considered dangerous unless he was off his meds, though everyone knew he had shot a boy on Wade Road, which had been his ticket in. He was thin, had almond shaped eyes, and skin that in certain lights looked yellow.”
Of the many lessons Chris learns at Pine Ridge, “one would be embedded in his mind for years after his release: when you or one of your own is attacked, retaliation is mandatory, no matter what the consequences or repercussions.” He learns others, too. Suffice it to say that various events at the jail turn Chris around. He gets released and goes to work for his father, who also gives a job to Ben Braswell.
Chris stays in touch with some of his Unit 5 mates — Ali, for example, who is working with an organization that finds jobs for ex-cons. And Lawrence Newhouse, who post-release is trying to pull his life together too.
While laying carpet in a vacant house, Chris and Ben discover a gym bag of cash. Fifty grand. They are tempted, but they resist. Still, the money gets taken. And that’s when the folks who left it in the first place — a tatted con from West Virginia named Sonny Wade and his jailhouse sidekick Wayne Minors — show up. Armed and dangerous. They discover the empty cash cache.
What follows is a game of cat and mouse that counterpoints violence and suspense with the emotional highs and lows of a problematical father-son relationship and a burgeoning romance for Chris. It’s all wrapped in cinematic writing that displays why Mr. Pelecanos was nominated for an Emmy as a writer/producer on the HBO crime series “The Wire.”
Listen to Lawrence explain why, when it comes to actually killing someone, Chris won’t measure up. “‘You ain’t hard enough, Christina. You just think you are. But you don’t get to the kinda hard that me and them other boys at the Ridge were at, comin’ from where you did. With your home and your library, and your pet dog.’
“When I came out [of Pine Ridge]?’” Lawrence says, “‘wasn’t nobody with their arms out and a smile on their face. But when you came out the Ridge, I bet there was some[one] there for you.’ Chris did not answer and Lawrence said, ‘Bet your mother made you a real nice dinner, too’