The Way Home, George Pelacanos, Little, Brown, $24.99.
In The Way Home George Pelacanos applies his eye to the American teenage boy and it's not always a pretty sight. As one of his characters says: "Boys that age just don't think right. They wired up stupid in their heads." His central character, Chris Flynn, though a product of a secure middle class home, still doesn't care about anything and eventually ends up in juvenile jail thanks to a long night of very poor impulse control, involving drugs, a speeding car, and a couple of blown traffic lights. His parents are of course stricken—his father unable to talk to Chris, his mother simply heartbroken over the fate of her only child. But this is Chris' story, and so we are given it in pieces through his lens, and most specifically, the lens of the prison he's clapped into at age 17.
As Chris' life is detailed—the middle class boy who wants to be a hard ass, and who finally gets what he wants, only to find it's not what he wants at all—redemption comes upon him in fits and starts. He's not ready to give up "Bad Chris", his high school persona, but the much harder boys he encounters at Pine Ridge know he doesn't belong with them. They can't believe he came from a home where his father actually read books. There are a couple boys he meets along the way, Ben, Ali, and Lawrence, who will continue to influence who he becomes and how he reacts to life. Pelacanos skillfully tells his story in parts. The first part is Chris' high school career and his crime; the second part is jail time; and the third part is after.
Pelacanos is a wonderful writer because he's able to so skillfully detail and observe his characters' lives that you feel as if you are truly there. It's completely unobtrusive—it just is. It's hard to look away once you are swept into the novel because the characters seem absolutely real. When Chris gets out of Pine Ridge, he begins working for his father, who has a successful business installing carpets. He's partnered with his friend Ben and they make a good team. Ben is grateful for the chance to work—Chris' father has given a few of the Pine Ridge boys a try, and Ben is one of the few that has worked out. One day on a job the two discover a giant bag full of cash under the floor after they rip up the old carpet. They are alone in the house and could have taken the money, but Chris has truly gone straight, and doesn't want any trouble. He tells Ben to put it back, and Ben reluctantly obeys. What neither Ben nor Chris anticipate is that Ben will go out with his old pal Lawrence, and under the influence of alcohol and weed, tell Lawrence about the find under the floor. After that nothing seems to go right, and much like a Hitchcock movie, Pelacanos manages to keep the tension brewing right under an apparently normal and placid surface.
The relationships in this book, and the believable ways they evolve, are just another masterful level to this powerful novel. The message here might be that life isn't fair, and you should enjoy the good parts for the brief while that they last. The third Pine Ridge alum, Ali, has made good at a non profit that tries to employ boys after they get out of prison and get them into the habit, as Ali puts it, of work. The message in the book that luck in life is truly parcelled out in unequal measure is delivered, but it's not delivered by sucker punch, it's delivered by narrative. Chris and Ali try to rectify the luck situation, each in their own way, and this may be the most "novel-y" bit of the book. For the rest this is a fine character study and a great story. It's moving and memorable, and for any reader, a terrific introduction to one of the best writers of any kind at work at the moment.
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