Saturday, October 24, 2009

Book Review: The Way Home by George Pelecanos

The Way Home by PelecanosI suppose that it was inevitable: a weak effort from George Pelecanos. The Way Home is the first book I have read by Pelecanos that did not succeed in creating a memorable world full of interesting characters and a fast moving storyline.

The Way Home is maudlin and disappointing. It would likely not have been published had it been submitted by a first-time writer. But Pelecanos has built up a solid fan base and loads of credibility, and can get away with the occasional clunker.

Pelecanos has never been a great writer in much the same way that many of the famous noir writers were not great writers. A solid, entertaining story teller? Absolutely. But skewed syntax and more than a few strangely constructed sentences always stand out in a book by Pelecanos. But it usually doesn't matter, because he has that talent for putting together believable characters in a few deft strokes and then pushing the narrative forward to an explosive if somewhat predictable conclusion.

His most recent effort, however, takes the speechifying that has started creeping into his novels as of late to a whole new, utterly tiresome level. The characters here are flat and will elicit barely any empathy from readers. And the main premise around which the book is built blasts away the suspension holding up any semblance of belief.

We have a father who has always been hard on his son, and the son who predictably goes off the rails, starts using drugs, and gets locked up in a juvenile detention home. Flash forward about eight or nine years, and dear sonny boy is out in the world working for his father's carpet installation business. The classic bag of money that has been at the heart of so many crime novels makes an appearance here. But the way that things play out just isn't likely.

Every plot twist seems to be introduced for the sole purpose of allowing more clich├ęd pablum to flow from the gobs of the characters. We don't even really get to see the protagonist in action except for a petty juvenile crime that originally landed him in reform school in the early part of the book. Too much effort is devoted to the cause that the author is championing.

We get it: Pelecanos believes that the way young offenders are locked up is wrong. That's the whole problem. It comes across as a book-long rant upon which a weak story is hung. As opposed to a theme that is smoothly woven into the storyline.

Not only is it a weak effort, but it made me look back and reassess some of the other books that Pelecanos has written. Perhaps a similar storyline played out numerous times was not something to criticize at the time because the results were so entertaining. But when none of the elements that make so many of Pelecanos's books enjoyable are present, the same revenge ending with two individuals tooling up to commit justifiable murder falls flat.

Why exactly does a writer like Pelecanos produce a book like this after so many effective efforts? Perhaps he just ran out of the creative juice that spurred him on for so long. Maybe it was a rush job for a paycheque. Maybe the success from his work on The Wire and his energy being taken up elsewhere didn't allow him to put in the necessary time.

If you've heard that Pelecanos is a very good crime writer, you should still believe it. Just don't start with this novel. In fact, give The Turnaround a miss as well—his most recent novel before The Way Home also suffers from some of the same problems. Start with one of his classics, such as Hard Revolution or The Big Blowdown. Let's hope this trend doesn't continue and Pelecanos gets back to writing the great crime novels that made him so popular in the first place.

No comments:

Post a Comment