Monday 29 November 2010

The Way Home

I like it when one thing leads to another, and the other is somewhere you wouldn't otherwise have gone. American crime novels (apart from Sara Paretsky, whose latest probably merits a separate blogpost) have tended to attract me much less than 'Eurocrime', which is almost a separate genre. I'm never quite sure why I read crime novels so avidly anyway. Violence, after all, appalls me, and being gobbled up and spat out by a tightly wound, frenetic plot often leaves me drained and faintly disgusted. If there is a reason beyond habit I think it's a more tangential one - or is this in fact the main attraction for many readers? I keep on reading crime novels not for the gore and horror and suspense, but for quite other pleasures. It's the prescribed structure of an outsider/ investigator, be they a character in the novel or, as here, merely the voice of the writer (where is here? I'm getting to it, really), entering a defined community and having a good, curious, persistent look around; the way that endless variations on this narrative give permission for detailed and penetrating description. A story of investigation is like staring for a long time at a painting, exploring every corner - a Dutch interior, a Constable landscape or one of those crowd scenes by Brueghel. This association probably accounts for the number of novels where the clue to a mystery lies in an old painting (my absolute favourite: La Tabla de Flandés / The Flanders Panel by Arturo Pérez Reverte). It's a key, too, surely, to the historical crime sub-genre: so apparently unquenchable is the appetite for these that British novelist Susanna Gregory, for example, has successfully branched out from her justly popular series set in medieval Cambridge to another that unfolds in Restoration London - richly drawn, engaging voyages into environments of which there is just enough historical record to guide writer's and readers' imagination. And it's why a goodly sub-genre has come to be a vehicle for social criticism.

None of the above really explains why, while gorging on American fiction in general (how not to gorge? - there is so much of it), my crime habit has largely confined itself to European writers. There needs to be a hook of the familiar, perhaps. Is it precisely within the tension between familiar or imaginable environments and unimaginable fear or horror that a crime story flourishes? And the American street is just that bit too unfamiliar? That would explain why the refrains of Baltimore vernacular floating through my head after recent immersion in borrowed boxed-set DVDs of The Wire led me to pick up for the first time a novel by George Pelecanos, whose name had flashed before me in the writing credits for a couple of the later series.

The Way Home, his latest to come out in UK paperback, is what I've been reading this week. It's an odd book, this story of Washington teenager Chris Flynn going off the rails, drifting into drugs and petty crime and finally prison, his concerned and loving, but far from perfect parents, and the wider social forces acting on them all. It reads more like reportage than fiction. The dialogue is stunningly well written, with just enough suggestion of DC street talk to evoke its cadences believably, not enough to become tiresome, as faithful representation of dialect too easily does. But much of the rest is flat, sociological description of urban transformation, family dynamics, the psychology of the adolescent male, interspersed with equally flat physical description and the whole quite without the shape or rhythm, at sentence level, that I'm programmed to expect in the narrative of a novel. I keep reading because I care about all the issues evoked, because the perspective is clearly liberal, humane, concerned. The project at whose service the talent and reputation of George Pelecanos are here placed is one I admire. But, then, don't I therefore wish all the more for the characters and story to be more dramatic, less baldly presented, in order to grip and persuade in a worthy cause?

But, wait. Although I have found a lot of this prose so flat, those fiercely detailed, factual descriptions have built a remarkably clear and lingering picture in my mind (back to the painting analogy). There is a power in this kind of writing. I'm intrigued and rather impressed, too, by the slowness and spaciousness of the plot (and this is perhaps a departure for Pelecanos, rather than typical of his previous novels). There is the requisite very nasty crime, coming near the end and pulling the reader towards it. But the main dynamic of The Way Home is a slower and more ordinary tale of family tensions and societal problems visited on the younger generation - why one young man gets into trouble, how he slowly gets out of it, how the price of redemption, in a society that seems resolutely unsupportive of the better instincts, is not so much smaller than that of disaster, but still worth hoping for and being glad of. It's a book that keeps me thinking, which is rather exceptional, really, in a genre that tends to pick you up and spin your mind and drop you, leave you not thinking.


Anonymous said...

What an interesting review, Jean. I haven't read many European crime novels. Fred Vargas was a first for me. I'd be interested in who you'd recommend. I don't read crime books a lot. But every so often I like all the elements you mentioned.

litlove said...

How very interesting. Much as I like all things American, I tend towards British crime because I love the juxtaposition of the uberpolite surface with dark tensions boiling beneath. I know exactly what you mean when you talk about exploring a whole painted canvas of a society, and I really enjoy that too. But it's picking the facade away that somehow hypnotises me.

Dale said...

Wonderful post. Yes, it's exactly this -- what would you see if you were allowed, or rather if it was your duty, to question and examine every single person involved in -- anything? Sure, we pick a murder, but really it could be anything. And you keep returning with the new information -- what do these relationships look like now, now that we know X? Let's ask them again --