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BOOK REVIEW

Loyalty, suspense drive 'The Way Home'

Author George Pelecanos is also producer for HBO's ''The Wire.'' Author George Pelecanos is also producer for HBO's ''The Wire.'' (Ian Allen for The Boston Globe)
By Chuck Leddy
Globe Correspondent / May 16, 2009
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George Pelecanos, a producer and screenwriter for HBO's gritty police drama "The Wire," knows the often-lethal streets of Washington, D.C., and this strong sense of place drives his narrative forward as much as his characters.

"The Way Home" is a crime story that revolves around the nature of loyalty. Chris Flynn opens the story in a juvenile detention facility, where he slowly becomes part of a close-knit group of offenders. Chris is alienated from his father, and Pelecanos explores the roots of mistrust and the eventual thawing between them.

Chris "seemed not to care . . . what his degeneration was doing to his parents," and his ex-cop father, now in the carpet business, resents it. Chris has been jailed for assault, but the other inmates, all of them African-Americans, resent Flynn for his stable home and relative prosperity. Pelecanos's depiction of Chris's life in juvenile detention, with its sudden violence and mind-numbing boredom, is wondrously vivid: Readers can viscerally sense these young men testing one another's toughness, searching for weaknesses to exploit.

After Chris is released, his father grudgingly gives him a job installing carpets. The story really begins when Chris and a friend from juvenile detention, Ben, show up to do a job at a Washington row house and find a bag of money under the floorboards. A reformed Chris persuades Ben to "[z]ip up the bag and put it back." But Ben later tells his friend Lawrence Newhouse (also from juvenile detention) about the find, and Lawrence takes the money.

When Chris learns that the money's gone, he decides not to tell anyone, especially his father: "It came to Chris that there was nothing to do. . . . No one would miss the money." Needless to say, the plot thickens when two killers come looking for the cash. Pelecanos's narrative builds suspense as these killers hunt down Ben and kill him, and then set out to find Chris and do the same.

Just as Chris is trying to follow the straight and narrow, planning to attend college and marry his new girlfriend, he's pulled back into the criminal underworld. Caught between loyalty to his friends and his father, Chris decides to protect his friends and strike back at the killers. When his girlfriend pleads with Chris not to throw away his life seeking revenge, he echoes Gary Cooper in "High Noon": "I got to do this."

Lawrence and Chris team up to confront the killers, but Lawrence feels responsible for Ben's death and wants Chris to stay out of it: "I killed him," Lawrence tells Chris, "This here got nothing to do with you. So go home, White Boy. Leave me to my thing." When Chris refuses, Lawrence punches him in the face, rendering him unconscious, and pursues the killers.

Pelecanos describes the climactic standoff between the killers and Lawrence. At book's end, father and son walk in the woods together and discuss Chris's future. Yet Pelecanos remains conscious of the not-so-lucky: "Chris knew that for everyone like him, who had good fortune, there was a Lawrence Newhouse, who had none. . . . If the storytellers told it true, all stories would end in death. But that will come in time, thought Chris. Not today."

"The Way Home" is an action-packed, suspenseful mystery story that explores family loyalty and friendship. Pelecanos, as usual, writes crackling prose that propels the reader forward, turning the pages deep into the dark night.

Chuck Leddy is a freelance writer who lives in Dorchester.

THE WAY HOME By George Pelecanos

Little, Brown, 323 pp., $24.99

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