The truism that genre novelists are producing genuine works of literature is now matched by the trend of great literary novelists choosing to work, self-consciously perhaps, in genres. Recently, Michael Chabon wrote a terrific crime novel (The Yiddish Policeman’s Union), and August will bring us Inherent Vice, Thomas Pynchon’s first overt gumshoe work.
George Pelecanos has never written boilerplate crime fiction, but his fourteen novels had still been identifiable as genre work: recurring characters, a signature milieu (Washington, DC and environs), con men, dead bodies, loners, even some good old fashioned private investigation. He may be known to other fans as the Emmy-nominated screenwriter (also story editor and producer) for The Wire, the acutely novelistic HBO series that concluded in 2008. The Wire was brilliant, but it was also dominated by the motifs and characters of crime fiction.
The Way Home, Pelecanos’s new novel, feels like something distinctly new. Chris Flynn spends most of the first third of the novel in “youth rehabilitation” lock-up in the suburbs of DC, but these hundred pages are not about crimes, guns or murder. Rather, we get to know a restless but somewhat privileged young man who comes from a fine neighborhood and never had much use for school or “good behavior”. His arrests are the result of too much pot, some joy-riding, and a decided streak of anger toward a father who is a pretty good guy, if no saint.
Without a riveting murder or lurid suspense to keep a reader titillated, Pelecanos entertains like a non-genre novelist. Chris and his father, Thomas, are generously drawn characters who circle each other with combinations of love, silence, and wariness. Thomas grew up in DC but didn’t get much education, ultimately making it the hard way as the owner of a business installing carpet. He lives in his parents’ house in one of he swankier neighborhoods in the city, a place where he has never felt entirely at home, surrounded now by lawyers, doctors, and lobbyists who he assumes look down on him. Chris is equally out of place on Livingston Street, but in a slightly different way. He is angry and uncommunicative, though we’re not sure why: immature, tough, but not bad. When he winds up at the Pine Ridge Youth Detention Facility, it’s painful to see how Thomas can’t admit that he loves him and how Chris can’t open himself to really being loved.
Inside the facility, Pelecanos avoids prison clichés and, instead, fleshes out several more characters: Ali Carter, a smart kid with a sense of ambition; Ben Braswell, who sweetly imagines that the kids in lock-up might get a puppy; and Lawrence Newhouse, whose temper and impulses are a problem. Though Chris is one of the few white inmates, Pelecanos wisely keeps the focus on class. Lawrence asks Chris at one point, “What you grinnin’ on, White Boy? Thinkin’ about your home? Bet you got a nice one.” And Lawrence is right. Though Chris struggles with his emotionally withholding father, Thomas has a job waiting for Chris when he gets out.
Which is where we find ourselves 100 pages into The Way Home—with Chris and Ben installing carpet for Thomas Flynn, and having been drawn into a set of intriguing relationships. But decidedly not wondering about a murder, a crime, a mystery. The pot simmers but doesn’t really boil. Yet.
Chris and Ben, working a job for a house-flipper in a marginal DC neighborhood, discover $50,000 under a loose floorboard. Despite the obvious temptation, Chris convinces Ben that they have to leave the cash. The lessons of Pine Ridge include not only cleaning up your act but also not provoking people unnecessarily. Chris says, “There’s no shortcut to where we’re trying to get to.” But when Lawrence Newhouse shows up at Ben’s place later that night, some weed and some Popov vodka spill the secret. And when the money goes missing, a couple of good ol’ boys start looking for the carpet installers who must have taken their cash.
By this point, Pelecanos’s novel is half over, but there’s no feeling that even a page has been wasted. Will there be violence, suspense and trouble? You bet. But the powder kegs in The Way Home are in the feelings between the characters. Ali runs a jobs program for trouble kids, and he forces Chris to re-experience Pine Ridge. Chris sees the decency—even the nobility—of his father, but he can’t really feel close to it. Lawrence dreams of a better life that he’s certain he can’t have.
The other power source in the novel is Pelecanos’s austere but potent writing. He paints his characters and scenes with a quick chisel, using few elaborate descriptions but plenty of voices, all of them authentic. His sentences jab and observe rather than opine. He notes that a character drives “a maroon Impala” or that Chris “punched a number into the phone” and whole paragraphs of flourish are avoided. Yet at critical moments, Pelecanos can also be generously visual, cinematic: “His chest and belly were slick with red. Sonny was blinking his eyes slowly, struggling to breathe, the rain hitting his pale and frightened face as he pondered eternity.”
The Way Home is a morality tale, but the issue is not really the morality of the individual characters, even as they dominate the story. As in The Wire, Pelecanos is at his best trading in characters of compromised but striving morality. There’s not a saint here, and most sinners here have saintly moments. But the accumulation of the story asks questions about how we treat children, about how comfortable we are with gross economic inequality, and about whether we can love enough if we go through life wounded. Nothing in the narrative talks about these issues, but the narrative demands these questions by its very shape.
That is the mark of a serious novelist, and George Pelecanos is just such a writer.