George Pelecanos has won praise for his hard-edged novels, and his work as a producer for HBO's The Wire. Here is Sarah Weinman's review of his new book, The Way Home, a softer approach to story-telling:
There comes a point in a writer’s career when reviewers start to look not just at the book on the “New Releases” table in the bookstore, but at the body of work as a whole. For crime writers, such summary judgments focus either on specific characters — Chandler’s Marlowe, Christie’s Marple and Poirot, Highsmith’s Ripley — or indelible one-offs, like Eric Ambler’s A Coffin for Dimitrios and Dorothy B. Hughes’ In a Lonely Place. Characters inspire loyalty, passion and debate among readers; one-offs spur re-examination, depending on the time period of discovery.
George Pelecanos, however, is a different breed, because his work is less about specific characters and more about discrete periods. Certainly, all his novels share certain attributes: chronicling urban Washington, D.C., as it was then and now, paying attention to the nuances of racial tensions and togetherness, examining masculinity against the backdrop of criminality, all set to musical soundtracks. But the three early ’90s novels featuring accidental P.I. Nick Stefanos crackle with a youthful energy that sobers up in two subsequent period-heavy quartets, and disappears entirely starting with 2006’s The Night Gardener.
To use art-class terminology, the Stefanos trilogy represents Pelecanos’ student days, the D.C. Quartet is early (when he’s more or less found his voice), the novels starring Derek Strange and Terry Quinn (especially 2004’s Hard Revolution) are early-late, and now, in his early 50s, it is only right that Pelecanos is thick in his middle period. The prose isn’t as loose but the edges aren’t as sharp. The musical soundtrack plays, but it blends better into the scene. Urban D.C. remains the setting, but with history dispensed with, social concerns are contemporary and do not resort to a younger man’s righteous bombast.
The strongest example of this quieter approach in Pelecanos’ new novel, The Way Home, appears early on,the turning point that transforms Chris Flynn from a trouble-prone, pot-smoking teenager into a youth-detention statistic: “He drove west on Livingston, the street where he lived, and a car turned off 41st and fell in behind him. The car was a big square sedan and it was then that he knew.” By the end of that paragraph, Chris has been cuffed by a policeman ready to recount his recent transgressions: “The woman who hit our cruiser at Morrison, where you blew that stop sign? Mother of three. She’s in Sibley’s emergency room with severe injuries. They collared her and taped her to a gurney.”
Act 1 finished, Pelecanos gets to work on the meat of the story: how Chris’ juvenile incarceration strips away folly and transforms him into a hardworking man on the cusp of redemption. He is ready to settle down, yet the prospect of returning to his old ways dangles over him with far greater potential costs. The scenes at juvenile hall bring to mind Don Carpenter’s 1966 tome Hard Rain Falling (to be reissued this fall with an introduction by Pelecanos), especially in its depiction of emerging masculinity within detention walls.
During the redemptive phase, a chance discovery underneath a floorboard provokes a series of cascading moral dilemmas that puts Chris on the same path as a couple of sociopaths straight out of a Charles Willeford novel. Even then, as he does with a middle-class matron, a quietly seething waitress and Chris’ fellow Pine Ridge mates, Pelecanos passes no judgment, depicting them with an understanding of their character.
The Way Home remains true to its titular purpose; as a result, the structure is perhaps less weighted toward a classic narrative arc and more toward the journey itself. As with his last two novels, Pelecanos demonstrates that redemption, if it comes at all, is hard-won.