Omni Podcast: George Pelecanos on "The Way Home"
I'd been wanting to meet George Pelecanos for a long time. I grew up outside of D.C., and since I left I've discovered what Pelecanos was doing in mapping the city and its recent history in more than a dozen crime novels mostly set far away (in class and culture if not in miles) from the marble edifices of the Mall and the polished wingtips of K Street. And the reasons to talk to him continued to pile up, including, of course, his work as one of the main producers and writers of the every-bit-as-good-as-everybody-says HBO series, The Wire, as well as this excellent list of his favorite westerns he did for our Grownup School feature a few years back. (And one more reason, which came up since I talked to him: Hard Rain Falling, Don Carpenter's 1966 novel, which the saints at New York Review Books are bringing back out in September with an intro by Pelecanos. I just read it last week and was wowed by two things--first, what a knockout book it is (expect an upcoming Daily Crush from me on it), and second, what a George Pelecanos book it is, with a similar feeling for straightforward language and a similar sense of moral decision-making in a gray world. And with its story of young men reckoning with the effects of prison, I can't imagine it wasn't in the back of Pelecanos's mind when he worked on his latest novel, The Way Home.)
Which brings me to today's subject: I did get to meet Pelecanos, in my little interview booth at this year's BEA. We talked about The Way Home, which meant talking about young men and prison and writing stories about the decisions they face, and also about the neighborhood in the District where it is mostly set, which is a little closer to my own home suburb than the parts of the city Pelecanos usually writes about. You can listen right here, or read the transcript after the jump. (You can also watch his short tribute to the other current master of D.C. fiction, Edward P. Jones, which I posted last week. And for another--no doubt better--interview with him, see Stop Smiling, which has posted an excerpt from their lengthy, very local back-and-forth with him from their excellent D.C. issue.)
Amazon: Let's start with the new book. Your main character, Chris Flynn, he comes from Friendship Heights, which is not your usual side of the city. Talk about him, talk about his neighborhood. What's he doing on the Red Line to Shady Grove?
Pelecanos: Well, he lives in this kind of well-to-do neighborhood of upper Northwest, which I've never really written about in detail, but I'm familiar with it. And his dad is the last blue-collar guy in the neighborhood. He inherited the house. And he has a carpet and floor business. His father sort of has a chip on his shoulder about the rich people around him. So anyway, Chris starts getting into trouble, keeps getting into trouble. It gets worse and worse. And finally he has this night of crime where he does a bunch of things that the law can really no longer ignore.
And he gets sent to a place--in the book it's called Pine Ridge, but it's based on Oak Hill, which is D.C.'s juvenile prison. The juvenile prison is usually about 99% black inmates. Chris is a white kid from the rich side of town, but he goes in there and it's really not what you'd expect. It's not the kind of Bad Boys thing, where--what's going to happen to the white kid in that environment? Because the boys don't really fight a lot among themselves. If they're going to swing on anybody, they swing on the guards. And he makes some relationships there. The book follows him and his friends there, 10 years after, what happens to them when a couple of them find some money. They try to do the right thing. It doesn't work out well.
So that's the thriller element of it. But the meat of the story is Chris's relationship with his father, and how they find each other again, hence the title The Way Home. How do you get home, through the forest at night?
Amazon: It seems like there's a lot of kids in this story with disappointed parents. The kids didn't go the way their parents wanted them to, whether they go into trouble or not.
Pelecanos: That's right. That's the way a lot of parents feel, myself included. You have to remember to ease up a little bit. Try to remember what it was like when you were that age. And also, one of the things that I found when I was researching the book was that boys are wired differently. Neurologically, when they're in their teens, the majority of their brain is given over to impulse and adrenaline. Then when they get into their 20s, the majority of their brain is reasoning and conscience. So they do mature; they're going to get through it.
And my message to parents is, don't tweak out about it. Just do the best you can and wait for them to come home.
Amazon: Yeah. I thought the subtitle of the book could have been, "The Teenage Brain." That is the big question. How do you get through it, especially when there's guns around? How do you get through those years?
Pelecanos: Yeah, the hope is that when I say they'll get through it, they'll get through it unless something really bad happens. And that's what you're trying to keep them from. But not all boys can--they have to put their hand in the fire so they know it's hot. And Chris is one of those kids. You can't say, "Well, those kids on the other side of town. They don't have fathers around. It's a bad home environment." Yeah, that's true, but boys of all ages get in trouble. And girls too.
Amazon: But it's interesting that from his friends from juvie that they construct a little bit of a support network, which is not what you hear people go to jail do. Do you think that's typical of what you've seen at Oak Hill?
Pelecanos: Well, the boy in the book, Ali, who gets out and opens up kind of a storefront place to help other kids is very typical of all these little places around the city, like Peaceoholics and places like that. Just about all those places are run by ex-offenders trying to reach back. There's a tremendous amount of support there. Churches, Big Brothers and Sisters organizations. I mean, the community really does do a lot, and it goes unmentioned often, too often. Police, too. A lot of police I know are coaches in their spare time, that sort of thing.
In the absence of any meaningful help from the government, the community rallies and tries to help these kids out.
Amazon: Speaking as a novelist, that can be a hard story to tell--the story of the guy who goes straight or wants to go straight? A typical story is the guy who wants to make that one big score before he goes straight, and this is the guy who ignores the score--tries to ignore the score--and goes straight. Is that a hard story to write, or a hard story to sell?
Pelecanos: Well, you want to deliver the goods. I am still a crime novelist, so the impulse is to have him grab a gun and start shooting at the end of every book. I've done that before, when I was starting out, when I was younger.
Amazon: You had that teenage brain.
Pelecanos: I still had a piece of that teenage brain in there. My worldview has changed. I've matured. I've got kids. I've been a father for 18 years. I'm trying not to do that, because I don't believe in it. I mean, I don't think that's the answer. But the trick is to deliver those kinds of visceral thrills also, so what I often do is I show the people that are not going to make it. Yes, they go and do the wrong thing, and that involves an apocalypse of some sort.
Amazon: There are two characters who enter the book, who have done a lot more time than Chris and his friends. Chris, when he first goes off to Pine Ridge, he says he "knows how to jail." But these guys, they don't know anything but how to jail.
Pelecanos: Yeah, there's a boy named Lawrence in the book who is damaged, and had an abusive childhood. Ben has been in and out of foster homes, the other kid. Some of these kids are not--you're not able to save them. You just got to face that. They can't be reformed because too much has happened in their childhood. But the point is, you still have to try. I mean, right now, in the District, in the last four years we've had a new director of the DYRS, Youth and Rehabilitation Services, and he has transformed the system. And the way he did it was he got rid of the old school out there at the prison. Put in new teachers. He has stopped locking up kids for things like marijuana charges, because kids with marijuana possession charges don't belong in prison with kids who have murdered people. They just don't. That system taints you.
And he put them to work building the new prison as apprentice carpenters, that sort of thing. They are getting high school degrees, not GEDs. They are being nurtured. It's called the Missouri Model. And the result is that in the last four years, the recidivism rate for youths has gone down 19%. It is tremendous success and I wanted to put that in the book to show people that it can be done. You just have to change the system a little bit and there is hope for these kids.
Amazon: Yeah, it seems like the mood of the country--well, in the last 20, 30 years--has gone the total opposite direction: prison is not a place for rehabilitation, or nurturing. That word would blow some people's heads off.
Pelecanos: Well, you're feeding the prison industrial complex, you know what I mean? But I'm encouraged because people seem to be changing their minds about that. We lock up more people in this country than any other civilized country in the world, and it doesn't do anybody any good. So what I'd like to see also is a reform of this drug war that is just destroyed neighborhoods and families all over the country, and decriminalization and legalization of marijuana would help. It's crazy to put kids in jail and adults in jail for marijuana use when you can drink all the alcohol you want and go out and beat your wife up or wreck your car, kill somebody on the highway.
The politicians need to stop being so cowardly and do what they know is right because they all came from the same generation I did.
Amazon: A lot of your stories have taken place in the past few decades. This one is pretty contemporary. And you, or at least your characters, have some pretty positive things to say about how some things have gone in DC recently; about development that some people might look at as gentrification. What is your sense, as a long-time DC man, of how things are going there?
Pelecanos: I think it is good. When you go down to U Street now, the 14th Street corridor, it is what we've said we all wanted all along. It is people of all different races and backgrounds hanging out together. Economic backgrounds are different, and that's what we've been trying to do. So the people that complain about the H Street corridor is being-you see yuppies down there now. Well, you've got to think, before that those places were all dark. They were boarded up. Now all those places that are open are employing people. Folks have jobs. They are taking care of their families. Their kids are going to see them going to work everyday. That's how it works, man.
Amazon: One of your trademarks is the music in your books, kind of the soundtrack. And there is music in this book too, but in some ways it seemed like it was much more a book about books. A lot of your characters are readers or they are not readers: Chris and his dad, that's one of the ties that they have. Ben becomes a reader. Is that something you were conscious of when you were writing it?
Pelecanos: Yeah, because I actually got to this book because I was working out--I work in all kinds of prisons, but I was working out at Oak Hill trying to teach books. And I say "trying." And, now I am going to institute a program through the PEN-Faulkner Foundation where we make it a permanent part of the curriculum at Oak Hill where a writer like myself or one of my friends will go out and teach a book throughout a semester. And I just think that--there is a high rate if illiteracy at these places. When somebody can read and they go out in the world, they've got a tool in their toolbox that other people don't have. It gives them a leg up. It's not just about enjoying a book, it's about being able to make it in the world. And if you can't read, you can't make it, man.
Amazon: Are there certain books that you found work at getting that across?
Pelecanos: Well, you don't want to make it too complicated. And a crime novel is perfect, if it is an artful one. If it's well done you'll get their attention, they'll read the book, and they'll come out engaged in the world in a different way then before they read it hopefully.
Amazon: Chris and his dad, they are history buffs and their favorite books are some of my favorite books: the Taylor Branch trilogy.
Pelecanos: Yeah, that's a landmark trilogy. I think I mentioned With the Old Breed by E.B. Sledge, which is the greatest memoir to come out of World War II, I believe. And I was involved in the show The Pacific, which is coming out next year on HBO. And one of the books, the source material, was With the Old Breed, so I wanted to give that a shout out. And in the writing of that show, I got interested in American history. I've always been interested in the Civil Rights Movement and the Taylor Branch books are the best books, the authoritative books on the subject.
Amazon: Well, I was going to ask about The Wire and I was going to ask whether you think something like that could ever happen again, but that leads me to ask about The Pacific. That's the first I've heard about it, so tell me what you guys have going on.
Pelecanos: That's the sequel of sorts to Band of Brothers. It's not really a sequel but it is produced by the same people, Tom Hanks, Steven Spielberg. It is going to have that look but it is going to have a different story in that the Pacific War was a much different war. In many ways it was the most brutal war we had ever fought. My dad was a Marine who fought in the Philippines, specifically the island of Leyte in 1944. And I wanted to get on that to honor him. In addition to that, for the Wire fans, the same guys are doing a show set in New Orleans which we are making now. And it has been picked up by HBO. It is coming out next year. It is called Treme. It is about musicians who come back to the city after the hurricane and try to rebuild their lives.