Thursday, 4 June 2009


George Pelecanos' novels arrange themselves, mostly, in series; the three Nick Stefanos books, the outstanding DC Quartet, which includes two of his very best, and the quartet featuring Derek Strange (and sometimes Terry Quinn). Shoedog, another of his best, is a standalone, and Drama City (thus far) appears to be one too. Although on the surface there are no concrete links to suggest that Pelecanos is in the process of building another series, I find it very easy to approach The Way Home, his excellent new novel, as very much part of a continuity with his previous two books, The Night Gardener and The Turnaround; a trilogy concerned deeply with issues of parenthood, of how we as parents and we as a society raise our children, and in the changing perception of values within that society, and which may reflect some of his experiences writing for The Wire .

I am not suggesting that Pelecanos is writing a novelized version of the TV series, absolutely not. There is a sense, in a sprawling narrative like The Wire, that you can cover lots of angles and bring a multitude of perspectives to bear. But Dennis Lehane talked (see the IT interview here) of having to leave out lots of good material because it didn't drive the storylines forward. The brilliance of what Pelecanos has done in his last three books is to focus his story-telling within narrative arcs that enable him to focus on specific personal stories. The Night Gardener had a framework of murder to be solved. But in Turnaround, the crime was in the past, and it was the working out of the present that drove the story. In The Way Home, it is a crime not committed, a sense of values upheld, that provides the tension, and by keeping that central plot simple, the narrative is left free to consider the characters. Spareness was the key to Shoedog; like a fine Gold Medal noir, there was no waste, which left you inside the characters. The same sort of spareness, but with a far more sensitive affinity for the quotidien society around those characters, makes The Way Home compulsive reading, and I think it's fair to say few Gold Medal books would strike such a chord of realism in the internal dynamics of an average working family in America in their own time as Pelecanos does today.

Chris Flynn is a teenaged screw-up, much to the consternation of his hard-working, blue-collar father Thomas. When Chris is sent to a juvenile prison, Thomas feels his son has to learn to pay the price for his actions, and in confinement, Chris eventually does. The story then shifts; Chris is working, laying carpet with his father, one of his prison buddies as his partner. He has a girlfriend, he has a straight life. Then, tearing up a floor, Chris discovers a bag of money...and leaves it. And from that point, the story escalates, with confrontation taking on an inevitability that will force Chris and his father to make hard choices, about exactly what it is men have to do, and exactly what fathers need to do for their sons.

Pelecanos writes movingly about the little things that make fatherhood; Flynn remembering the heat of his son's little hand as he rode in his bicycle seat. But that is part of a bigger picture. He states clearly what Flynn is: 'a guy who went to work every day, who took care of his family...and would pass on without having made a significant mark. He had been fine with this in the past. His aim was to install values, work ethic and character into his son, and see him through to adulthood, where he would become a productive member of society and in turn pass this along to his own children. But when Chris jumped the tracks, Flynn's belief in the system failed.' This is the central theme of this trilogy, and the failure of the system is not just one of kids going off the rails.

There is an element of melodrama about this; Chris' prison attitude is changed by a tragic event and the story is resolved with a piece of 'standing-up' whose roots may be a little more sentimental than realistic. Pelecanos' model is often the myth of the American west, where men have to do what men have to do, but where families, and houses, are signs of 'civilization' imposing itself on the lawless wilderness. Given the metaphor, the fact that Pelecanos is, at heart, a sympathetic writer, makes such hints of sentimentality work. They also work because, in the other thing which seems like it might be Wire-influenced, this book has the structure and flow of a scene-by-scene screenplay: each scene works, leads to the next, keeps the flow moving. It's a bravura piece of writing, and would make a fine film in the right circumstances. One final point about the Wire influence: possibly the pressures of working on the show ended Pelecanos' novel-a-year pace, if only for one year, but I think it shows in both The Turnaround (see my original review of that book, the first post to IT, here) and this book, in the sense that the personal stories are now foregrounded, the territory is staked out, and the crime elements are really there for structure. I think those two novels may have had a little longer to percolate, and they are among his best books as a result.

Sometimes, when people wonder why I'm drawn to crime fiction, I say because it addresses society as it is, not as we'd like it to be. The reality is, crime fiction doesn't actually do that very often. More often, it's addressing society as we dramatize it, without accepting that the dramatisation is real. The beauty of The Wire was that the dramatization did become real, something you can't simply finish and walk away from and never think about again. That is what Pelecanos has done here. The beauty of The Way Home is that you finish the novel and wonder whether, in the real world, living up to values alone is enough to get it done.

NOTE: This review also appears at Crime Time:

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