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Onyx reviews: The Way Home by George Pelecanos

Chris Flynn isn't the most likely candidate for a juvenile delinquent. He comes from a loving, lower middle class family. The only trauma they suffered was the loss of their firstborn, a girl who died before Chris was born. Chris's mother has turned to religion for consolation, but it's not a major issue in the Flynn household. Chris's father, who sells and installs carpet for a living, is at a loss to explain why his son is constantly in trouble. First it's vandalism and petty theft. Ultimately he is arrested after fleeing from a parking lot altercation. The subsequent car chase results in damage to property and injuries to bystanders. Chris also has a block of marijuana in his car.

Chris has no real reason to misbehave. He simply feels like doing what he's doing, and he is frustrated by his father's insistence that Chris's behavior is a reflection on his parenting. That his failings are also his father's failings, when in fact he owns his actions and doesn't try to assess blame elsewhere. 

He spends his teenage years in a juvenile prison where he is the only white inmate. He makes friends and allegiances while at Pine Ridge, but he also spends time examining his life and is determined to make changes upon release. The book then jumps ahead a number of years to a time long after Chris finished his sentence. He is working for his father, making a decent but modest living, doing a job that he is capable of but has no real aptitude for. 

His friend, and former prison buddy, Ali, has flourished since going straight. He went to university and now runs a community center where he is paid a pittance as he does his best to ensure that other young black men don't end up behind bars. He interfaces with the community to get jobs for at-risk youth. There's never enough money to achieve everything he wants and many of his young candidates don't possess the necessary desire to straighten up.

Chris is doing his utmost to stay out of trouble, and is even considering Ali's advice to further his education, perhaps pursuing his interest in American history. His resolve is tempted when he and his friend Ben discover a bag of money beneath the floorboards at one of their jobs. The apartment's owner is deceased with no next of kin, so the $50,000 technically doesn't belong to anyone, but Chris has "seen that movie." He knows that found money, especially that much, spells trouble, so he talks Ben into leaving the money where they found it. It's not exactly the most logical course of action, but Pelecanos uses Chris's hatred of the police to explain why they don't simply turn the money in to the authorities.

That isn't the end of the story, of course. While drunk, Ben talks about the money to another former Pine Ridge inmate who doesn't have Chris's revitalized moral compass. Then the money's owners show up, a brutal duo who adulate the killers from In Cold Blood and pretend to be members of the Aryan Brotherhood. The trail to the money starts with Chris and Ben.

It's clear that Pelecanos wants to say something meaningful about the juvenile justice system, about the issues of troubled youth, and about the need for reform and rehabilitation. His characters preach propaganda and public service messages instead of conversing. The book as a whole feels like the skin wrapped around a skeleton of heavy-handed social commentary. It is easy to see why it ended up on President Obama's reading list, because it reads like a paean to revamping the way youthful offenders get lost or corrupted by the system.

The most effective part of the novel takes place in Pine Ridge, where the rules governing behavior aren't established by the warden. The prison guards sell drugs to their young charges, and their union resists every effort to reform the system. The inmates learn to exist according to a complicated set of ad hoc social rules. They do not, however, as in most prison stories, always seek revenge when something bad happens to an ally (which makes Chris's actions years later harder to rationalize).

However, Pelecanos glosses over what could have been the most interesting section of Chris's story—his transition from incarceration back into society. Instead, he jumps ahead to a Chris who is already solidly on the right path. The reason for his reform from Bad Chris (captured in an illustration by his former girlfriend) to Good Chris remains vague. It all feels a little too easy.

When Chris feels the urge to seek retribution when one of his posse is harmed, Pelecanos finds a way to allow his protagonist to achieve redemption and yet give his readers the blood he seems to think they crave, even if it means sacrificing another character as a pawn. Again, it feels overly easy and manipulative.

Chris's father and his friends are more colorful characters than Chris is himself. The Flynn family as a whole is a nice microcosm of the American dream knocked gently off the tracks and allowed to find its way back on course again. They aren't unscathed, but their scars are manageable.

The Way Home isn't a terrible novel, but its title telegraphs the outcome from page one, and given the fine work Pelecanos has produced in the past, its disappointing that this book misses the mark. 

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