By Kevin Allman
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, May 11, 2009
THE WAY HOME
By George Pelecanos
Little, Brown. 323 pp. $24.99
In George Pelecanos's "The Way Home," it's the little things that matter. As a writer on the fine HBO series "The Wire," Pelecanos explored crime, punishment and redemption -- not in any grand manner, but through the prism of the smaller moments of life. He's fascinated by the minor decisions that end up making a huge difference in the long run, and the ripples that result when good but imperfect people try to do the right thing -- even when they're not exactly sure what the right thing is.
Chief among those people in his new novel is 17-year-old Chris Flynn, a middle-class kid from the Washington suburbs. As the story begins, Chris is smoking pot, breaking into cars and fighting -- a minor-league badass whose screw-ups are born more out of boredom and directionlessness than any major defect of character. After a car accident and police chase, Chris runs out of chances with the law, and a judge sentences him to a juvenile prison, where he's one of only a few white kids incarcerated with black teenagers, most of whom haven't had his advantages. Nor do they have parents like Thomas and Amanda Flynn, a heartbroken and somewhat confused couple whose other child died when she was 2 days old. Now their remaining child, Chris, is messy and imperfect, and to Thomas he's a "stained remainder of his failings as a father."
Flash-forward a few years, and Chris is out of jail, working at his father's carpet-installation company with Ben, a buddy from prison. Neither has any ambition, but they're both living on their own and maneuvering the dating scene: manual labor during the week, a girlfriend and a bit of weed and beer on the weekend. For Chris, whose classmates went on to law school and similar pursuits, there's a nagging feeling that he'll never be the man Thomas hoped he'd be; Ben has more of a Zen attitude toward his life, knowing he "was never going to be accomplished by society's standards, or rich by anyone's, but he was comfortable with his limitations."
Chris and Ben are sent to a gentrifying neighborhood near Logan Circle to meet Mindy Kramer, a hard-charging real estate agent whose specialty is flipping properties by installing some granite counters and fresh carpet in old rowhouses to make a quick buck on the yuppies and hipsters taking over the neighborhood. To Mindy, Chris and Ben are another pair of anonymous workmen; to them, she's just another pushy customer. But once Mindy leaves and Ben pulls back the carpet, the two discover a cutout in the wood floor, and inside is a gym bag containing nearly $50,000. Ben's first instinct is to keep it, but Chris, sensing trouble, insists they put it back: "There's no shortcut to where we're trying to get to. Just work, every day. Same as how it is for everyone else." So they put it back, install fresh carpet on top and try to forget they've ever seen it.
A secret bag of money? It's as shopworn as it sounds, and the loudest false note in "The Way Home." Ben and Chris's reaction also stretches credulity: Would anyone really replace an old bag of money back in a floor, particularly when it seemed to have been there for years? But when one of the two slips and mentions the hidden money to the wrong person, the house is broken into, the carpet comes up, and it sets off a chain reaction that grows to involve Mindy, Ben, Chris and eventually the whole Flynn family, becoming ever more violent along the way.
What rings true in Pelecanos's work isn't his plot devices but his characters, including Lawrence, a former jail mate of Chris and Ben's whose attempts at reform run more shallow than their own, and Ali, a young man who directs a storefront social center where he tries, mostly unsuccessfully, to steer inner-city kids away from the trouble around them. But his richest character is also his most workaday: Thomas Flynn, with his successful but unglamorous business in an office park in suburban Maryland, a dad who never quite gives up on his son no matter how tempted he is to do so, a man who "looked into 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."
By the end of "The Way Home," both Thomas and Chris have made that mark on each other, and Pelecanos suggests that, in its modest way, it may be enough for any father and son.
Allman is a frequent reviewer of mysteries.