The Way Home


By George Pelecanos

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Christopher Flynn is trying to get it right. After years of trouble and rebellion that enraged his father and nearly cost him his life, he has a steady job in his father’s company, he’s seriously dating a woman he respects, and, aside from the distrust that lingers in his father’s eyes, his mistakes are firmly in the past.

One day on the job, Chris and his partner come across a temptation almost too big to resist. Chris does the right thing, but old habits and instincts rise to the surface, threatening this new-found stability with sudden treachery and violence. With his father and his most trusted friends, he takes one last chance to blast past the demons trying to pull him back.

Like Richard Price or William Kennedy, Pelecanos pushes his characters to the extremes, their redemption that much sweeter because it is so hard fought. Pelecanos has long been celebrated for his unerring ability to portray the conflicts men feel as they search and struggle for power and love in a world that is often harsh and unforgiving but can ultimately be filled with beauty.


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NO ONE could say why it was called Pine Ridge. Wasn't any pines around that Chris could see. Just a group of one-story, L-shaped, red brick buildings set on a flat dirt-and-mud clearing, surrounded by a fence topped with razor wire. Beyond the fence, woods. Oak, maple, wild dogwood, and weed trees, but no pines. Somewhere back in those woods, the jail they had for girls.

The facility was situated on eight hundred acres out in Anne Arundel County, Maryland, twenty-five miles from Northwest D.C., where Chris had grown up. At night, lying in his cell, he could hear planes coming in low. So he knew that they were near the Baltimore airport, and close to a highway, too. Some days, if the wind was right, playing basketball on the outdoor court or walking to the school building from his unit, he'd make out the hiss and rumble of vehicles speeding by, straights going off to work or heading back home, moms in their minivans, kids driving to parties or hookups. Teenagers like him, only free.

Of course, he had been told exactly where he was. The director of the district's Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services, the superintendent, the guards, his fellow inmates, his parents, and the lawyer his father had hired to represent him had explained it to him in detail. He'd even been shown a map. But it was more interesting for him to imagine that he was in some kind of mysterious location. They are sending me to a top secret place in the woods. A facility for boys they cannot control. A place that can't hold me. I will now plan my daring escape, ha-ha.

"Chris?" said his mother.


"Is something funny?"


"You're grinning."

"Was I?"

"Chris, you seem to be treating all of this very lightly."

"I don't mean to, Ma. I was thinkin on something, was all it was."

"You were thinking about something," said his father.

Chris smiled, causing the muscles along his father's jawline to tighten.

Chris Flynn was seated at a scarred wooden table in the Pine Ridge visiting room. Across the table were his parents, Thomas and Amanda Flynn. Nearby, several other boys, all wearing polo shirts and khakis, were being visited by their moms or grandmothers. A guard stood by the door. Outside the room, through a square of Plexiglas, Chris could see two other guards, talking to each other, laughing.

"How's it going, honey?" said Amanda.

"It's all right."

"How's school?"

Chris glanced around the room. "I go."

"Look at your mother when she's talking to you," said Thomas Flynn.

Instead, Chris stared into his father's watery eyes. He saw a husk of anger and hurt, and felt nothing.

"I'm asking you," said Amanda, "are they treating you all right? Are people bullying you?"

"You don't need to worry about that. I know how to jail."

"You," said Flynn, his voice not much louder than a contemptuous whisper.

"Do you have one of those level meetings coming up?" said Amanda.

"Not that I know."

"They're supposed to have them monthly. I'll follow up with our attorney. He's in contact with the superintendent."


"Let's pray," said Amanda.

She laced her fingers together, rested her hands on the table, and bowed her head. Chris and Thomas Flynn dutifully did the same. But they did not speak to God, and their thoughts were not spiritual or pure.

When Amanda was done, the three of them got up out of their seats. Amanda looked at the guard, a big man with kind eyes who surely would understand, and she embraced her son. As she held him, she slipped three folded twenty-dollar bills into the pocket of his trousers.

Amanda broke away from him, tears heavy in her eyes. "We're doing everything we can."

"I know it."

"You're in my prayers. I love you, Chris."

"Love you, too, Mom." He said this quietly, so the other boys would not hear him.

Neither Chris nor his father made a step toward each other. After a long, empty lock of their eyes, Chris gave Thomas Flynn a tough nod with his chin, turned, and left the room.

"Should we try and talk to the superintendent before we leave?" said Amanda.

"What for?" Flynn shook his head. "Let's just go."

ALONG WITH an escort guard, Thomas and Amanda Flynn walked out of the building toward the gatehouse, Thomas in front of Amanda, his heavy steps indenting the mud beneath his feet. Inmates, between classes and lunch, were moving from unit to unit, their arms behind their backs, one hand holding the wrist of the other, accompanied by a guard carrying a two-way radio. All of the boys were black. Flynn had seen one Hispanic kid, waxy eyed and wired on meds, on his last visit, so maybe there were a few Spanish here, too, but that was immaterial to him. What weighed on him was that Chris was the sole white inmate of the facility.

My son, here with all these

Flynn stopped himself before ugly words spelled themselves out in his head.

He rang the bell on the door at the rear of the gatehouse, looking through bars and Plexiglas to get the attention of one of two uniformed women behind the counter. Like most of the female guard staff Flynn had seen here, these women were wide and generously weighted in the legs and hips. He and his wife were buzzed in, and they passed through the same security aisle, similar to those used in airports, they'd entered. Neither of the guards looked at the couple or spoke to them as Flynn and Amanda collected their keys and cells.

They exited the gatehouse and walked along the chain link and razor wire fence to Amanda's SUV, parked in the staff and visitors' lot. They did not talk. Amanda was thinking of going to early mass on Sunday and lighting a candle for Chris. Flynn, as he often did, was thinking of what had gone wrong.

By Flynn's reckoning, he had begun to lose his son somewhere in Chris's freshman year of high school. At the time, Chris was playing football and CYO basketball, getting decent grades, attending Sunday school and mass. He was also smoking marijuana, shoplifting, fighting other boys, and breaking into cars and lockers. This was all happening at the same time, when Chris was about fifteen. To Amanda, Flynn began to refer to his son as if he were two people: Good Chris and Bad Chris. By the time Chris was sixteen, only Bad Chris remained.

As a teenager and into his twenties, Flynn had blown his share of marijuana, so he detected Chris's use right away. Flynn could see the high in Chris's eyes, the way he would laugh inappropriately at violent images on the television screen, or his sudden interest in their Lab mix, Darby, playing tug-of-war or wrestling him to the ground, things he would never do while straight. Of course, there was the smell that always hung in Chris's clothing and, when he had copped, that unmistakable skunky odor of fresh bud in his bedroom.

It didn't bother Flynn horribly that his son smoked marijuana. In fact, he told Chris that he had no moral objection to it but felt that it was, basically, a waste of time. That for an already marginal student like Chris, it could impede his progress. What bothered Flynn, what became alarming, was that Chris began to smoke marijuana to the exclusion of everything else. He stopped playing sports. He stopped going to mass and hanging out with his church friends. He quit his job at the coffee shop in Friendship Heights. His grades edged toward failure. He seemed not to care about the loss or what his degeneration was doing to his parents.

Amanda still thought of Chris as her little boy and couldn't bring herself to discipline him like a young man. Plus, she was certain that the Lord would step in and, when He deemed it appropriate, blow the black clouds away and give Chris the wisdom to get back on the righteous path. Flynn's response was elemental and not carefully considered. He believed in Darwin over fairy tales and aimed to reinforce his position as the alpha dog of the house. He put Chris up against the wall more than once, raised his closed fist, and walked away before punching him. So Chris knew that his father was willing to cross the line and kick his ass, but the knowledge did nothing to alter his behavior. He didn't care.

Chris was charged with possession of marijuana. The arresting officer did not show up for court, and the charge was dropped. Chris got in a fight at school and was suspended. He strong-armed a fellow student for his Walkman on school property and was arrested and expelled for the remainder of the year. He received community service time. Chris and his friend Jason were caught on camera looting the lockers of their high school basketball team while the players were at practice, and were arrested and charged. An adjudicatory hearing was scheduled. Chris was videotaped vandalizing and stealing from cars in the back lot of a Mexican restaurant. His father paid off the owners of the restaurant and the owners of the vehicles, thereby avoiding the involvement of police. And then there were the final charges and the conviction that led to his incarceration: assault, possession with intent to distribute, leaving the scene of an accident, reckless driving, driving on the sidewalk, fleeing and eluding police. With each succeeding "incident," with each visit to the Second District station on Idaho Avenue to pick up his son, Flynn grew more angry and distant.

Kate would be eighteen now. We'd be looking at colleges. We'd be taking photos of her, dressed up for the senior prom. Instead of visiting that little shit with his prison uniform and his pride in knowing "how to jail."

Christopher Flynn was the only surviving offspring of Thomas and Amanda Flynn. Their first child, Kate, died two days after she was born. The death certificate listed the cause as "respiratory distress syndrome," which meant that she had suffocated. She was a preemie, and her lungs had not fully developed.

At the time of Kate's birth, Thomas Flynn was a young uniformed police officer in D.C.'s Fourth District. He had signed up impulsively, successfully passed through the academy, and upon his graduation he almost immediately realized he had made a mistake. He was dispassionate about the job and did not want to lock up kids, making him unsuited to be a soldier in the drug war. Flynn resigned and took a position as an account representative for a carpet-and-flooring wholesaler whose sales manager, not coincidentally, was his former high school basketball coach. Flynn's intention was to learn the business, establish contacts, and eventually go out on his own.

Soon after Kate died, Amanda became pregnant but lost the baby in the first trimester. Despite assurances from her obstetrician that she was healthy, Amanda, who along with Flynn had dabbled in cocaine in her youth, blamed her past drug use for Kate's premature birth and death. She believed that she had permanently damaged her "insides" and could no longer carry a child to term. "My eggs are dirty," she told Flynn, who only nodded, preferring not to argue with her, in the way that one does not try to reason with a loved one who has begun to mentally slip away. Amanda had by then welcomed Jesus into their lives, and Flynn found it increasingly difficult for the three of them to coexist.

Kate's death did not ruin their marriage, but it killed a piece of it. Flynn barely recognized in the humorless, saved Amanda the funny, spirited woman he had married. Despite the emotional gulf between them, they continued to have sex frequently. Amanda still secretly hoped to have a healthy child, and, born again or not, she had a body on her, and Thomas Flynn liked to have it. Chris was born in 1982.

As the problems with Chris progressed, Flynn found himself thinking more and more of Kate. She was with them for only two days and had no discernible personality, but he was haunted by her and obsessed with what she might have become had she lived. Chris was real, a stained reminder of Flynn's failings as a father. The Kate he imagined was a charmer, lovely, well mannered, and successful. Kate would surely have looked upon Flynn with loving eyes. He fantasized about the daughter he would never have, and it made him feel optimistic and right. Knowing all the while, from the evidence of his business and his everyday life, that reality was usually far less intriguing than the dream.

"Tommy?" said Amanda, now seated beside him in the SUV, Thomas Flynn in the driver's bucket and fitting his key to the ignition.


"We should schedule a meeting with our attorney. I want him to keep in contact with the warden."

"You want to help him, huh?" Flynn glared at his wife. "I saw you slip Chris that money."

"He might need it."

"I told you not to do that, didn't I?"

"Yes, but—"

"Didn't I."


"He's going to buy marijuana with it. They get it from the guards."

"I can't just leave him in there with no resources. He's our son."

Flynn held his tongue.


THE FIRST time Chris took a charge, for loitering and possession of marijuana, he was all nerves, standing in this room they had at the 2D station, waiting for his father to come and take him home. He was expecting his pops to spaz on him, put a finger up in his face, give him the lecture about responsibility and choices, maybe make some threats. But his father entered that room and, first thing, hugged him and kissed him on the cheek. It surprised Chris and, because there was a police officer in the room, embarrassed him. If his father was soft like that, someone might get the idea that Chris was soft, too.

"I told you not to touch him, sir," said the police officer, but Thomas Flynn did not apologize.

Chris should have expected his father to support him. If he had thought about it, he would have realized that his father had always taken his side against teachers and school administrators in the past, including those times when Chris had been in the wrong. Thomas Flynn had even physically challenged a security guy at Chris's middle school back when Chris started getting in trouble. The security guard had said, "Your boy needs to see a psychiatrist, somethin. He's not right." And his father said, "If I want your opinion, young man, I'll kick it out your ass." His father had a temper, and he was also in denial about who Chris was. But Chris knew who he was, even then.

It came to him one morning, lying in bed, after his mother had woken him up to go to school. He was in the seventh grade, thirteen years old. It occurred to him that he didn't have to get up and go to school if he didn't want to. That his parents couldn't force him to go. They couldn't, in fact, force him to do anything. Most kids would do what their parents said because they were the parents and that was how it worked, but Chris did not feel the way those other kids felt, not anymore. It was like something in his brain got switched off at the same time that something else, something more exciting, had been ignited. He still thought of his mom and dad as his parents, but he was no longer interested in pleasing them or doing what they thought was right. He didn't care.

His father's attitude changed after Chris began to get in trouble time and time again. It was partly the repetition of the incidents that wore his father down, but it was also the nature of them.

Chris liked to fight. He wasn't an honors or AP kid, and being good at fighting was a way of showing that he was someone, too. If it was a fair fight, meaning he wasn't picking on a retard or a weakling, then it was on, and someone was about to get hurt.

He rationalized robbery, too. If someone was stupid enough to leave cash in a locker, or have designer shades or a cell phone visible inside a parked car, then he was going to break into that locker or car and help his self.

He had bad luck, though, and he got caught. His old man would come to pick him up from the school office or the police station, and each time, his father's face was more disappointed and less forgiving. Chris wasn't trying to hurt his parents, exactly. But in his mind it was written like this: They have unreasonable expectations for me. They don't realize who I am. I am hard and I like to get high. I don't want to be their good boy and I don't want the things they want for me. If they can't face that, it's their problem, not mine.

"Why, Chris?" said his father, driving him back from the Mexican restaurant, Tuco's, where he'd been caught vandalizing and stealing from cars. "Why?"

"Why what?"

"Why are you doing this?" His father's voice was hoarse, and it looked to Chris that he was close to desperation.

"I don't know. I can't help it, I guess."

"You're throwing it all away. You've quit on everything, and you get high all the time. You've got a police record, and your grades are… they're shit, Chris. Other kids are studying for the SATs and looking at colleges, and you're breaking into cars. For what? What could you possibly need that I haven't given you? I bought you a car; why in the world would you want to damage someone else's?" Flynn's fingers were white on the steering wheel. "You live in one of the most upscale neighborhoods in Washington, in a nice house. You're trying to act like someone you're not. Why? What's wrong with you?"

"Nothing's wrong with me. I'm me. That SUV you bought me, it's fine and all that, but I didn't ask you for it. Far as my grades go, what's the point? I'm not going to college. Let's be real."

"Oh, so now you're not considering college?"

"I'm not going. I don't see any reason to go, because I'm not smart enough. Look, accept me like this or don't. Either way, I'm going to be who I am."

This was before the final incident, which started in the lot behind the drugstore on the west side of Connecticut Avenue, up by the Avalon Theater.

It was a midsummer night, and Chris and his friend Jason Berg, whom everyone but Jason's parents and teachers called Country, were walking out of the drugstore with a vial of Visine they had purchased and a bunch of candy and gum packs they had stuffed in their pockets and stolen. They had been drinking beer and smoking some bud, and were laughing at something that struck them as funny because they were high.

A pound of weed was stashed in the back of Chris's vehicle, under a blanket. They had bought it earlier in the evening from a connection on the D.C. side of Takoma and were planning to sell most of it off to their peers and keep an ounce for themselves. Jason had an electronic scale, and their intention was to bag out the marijuana the next day at his house while his parents were at work.

Jason was a big kid, tall and muscled up. He had a buzz cut and still wore braces. People thought he was stupid. He had the mouth-breathing, shallow-eyed look of an idiot, a lumbering walk, a stoner's chuckle, and he was into NASCAR and professional wrestling. Because of those interests and because he was white, the black kids at school had dubbed him Country.

Jason did nothing to discourage the impression others had formed of him. Truth was, he wasn't stupid in the least. His grades were middling because he didn't try during tests or turn in homework, but he had scored very high on his SATs, despite the fact that he had gotten massively baked the night before the exams. He was the son of a Jewish attorney who was a partner in one of the most prominent firms in the District, but he kept this and his intelligence hidden from the kids at school. The hard yahoo stoner was a preferable costume to him over the smart, privileged Jew.

Chris Flynn was of Irish Catholic extraction, shorter than Jason but not by much, and broad in the chest. He too wore his blond hair close to the scalp. He was fair skinned, green eyed, and had a lazy, charming smile. His one physical flaw was the vertical scar creasing the right side of his upper lip, acquired when he walked into an elbow during a pickup game that had gotten out of hand at the Hamilton Rec in 16th Street Heights. Chris liked the scar, and so did the females. He was handsome, but the scar told anyone who suspected it that he was no pretty boy. It made him look tough.

He was tough. He and Jason had proven it on the basketball courts and in situations involving hands. They did not hang with other white kids, the skateboarders and punk rockers and intellectuals who populated their high school, and were proud of the fact that they had earned respect, mostly, from the young black men who were bused in from the other side of town. Whether they were liked or not was beside the point to them. Everyone knew that Chris and Jason were on the edge, and that they could ball and fight.

"I think that Chinese girl behind the counter saw us pocket this stuff," said Chris, as he and Jason headed for Chris's SUV.

"What's Ling Ho gonna do? Get up after us?"

As they neared the Isuzu, Chris saw a group of three boys getting into a late-model Volvo station wagon parked down the row of spaces. One of them gave Chris a look, glancing at the old Trooper with the safari roof rack, and smiled in an arrogant way.

"Is he muggin me?" said Chris.

Jason stopped and hard-eyed the kid, who was now slipping behind the wheel of the Volvo. "I'll drop him if he does, son."

"They must be private school," said Chris. "You know those bitches can't go."

Chris and Jason, public-school kids, imagined themselves to be more blue-collar than the many kids in Ward 3 who attended private high schools. For Jason Berg it was an affectation, as his father was in the top 1 percent of earners. Chris, too, was living in a financially comfortable home environment, but he'd inherited the chip on his shoulder from Thomas Flynn.

Chris and Jason got into the SUV. Chris turned the ignition while Country messed with the radio. Despite his moniker, Country listened exclusively to hip-hop and go-go, and found something he could tolerate on KYS. It was a Destiny's Child thing that was popular and bogus, and they talked about that for a minute, and then Chris pulled down on the transmission arm, still talking to Jason and looking at him, and reversed the SUV. Both of them were jolted by a collision. They heard and felt the impact at the same time, and Chris said, "Shit."

He looked over his shoulder. They had hit the Volvo, passing behind them, and the three boys were getting out of the right-side doors because the Isuzu was up against the driver's side. Chris cut the engine and took a deep breath.

"You hit the right car, at least," said Jason with a grin.

"My father's gonna go off."

"What now?"

" 'Bout to see what the damage is," said Chris. "You stay in here."


"Positive. I don't want no trouble tonight. Remember, we got some weight in the back. I'm serious."

"Holler if you need me."

"Right." Chris left the keys in the ignition and got out of the SUV.

He walked toward the boys, now grouped in front of the Volvo. The largest of them was wide and strong, a football player from the looks of him, bulked up in the weight room, but he had nonthreatening eyes. The driver was Chris's size, prep school definitely from the square-hair, clean-shaved looks of him, and standing with his chest puffed out, which meant he was insecure and probably scared. The third kid, small and unformed, had pulled out a cell phone and was talking into it as he walked away. After sizing them all up quickly, the way boys and men do, Chris decided with some satisfaction that there wasn't one of them he could not take. Knowing this chilled him some and allowed him, for the moment, to stay even and cool.

"My bad," said Chris, facing the driver, the boy who'd given him the look. "Guess I wasn't payin attention."

"You guess," said the driver. "Look what you did to my car." Annoyed, not giving Chris any slack, not giving him a "That's all right" or an "It happens."

Chris shrugged and his eyes were dead as he looked at the driver. "Said it was my bad."


  • Praise for THE WAY HOME

    "Nobody can teach George Pelecanos anything he doesn't already know about the inherent drama in the father-son dynamic."—Marilyn Stasio, New York Times
  • "THE WAY HOME remains true to its titular purpose; as a result, the structure is perhaps less weighted toward a classic narrative arc and more toward the journey itself. As with his last two novels, Pelecanos demonstrates that redemption, if it comes at all, is hard-won."—Sarah Weinman, Los Angeles Times
  • "In George Pelecanos's THE WAY HOME, it's the little things that matter...he's fascinated by the minor decisions that end up making a huge difference in the long run, and the ripples that result when good but imperfect people try to do the right thing - even when they're not exactly sure what the right thing is."—Kevin Allman, Washington Post
  • "Between the wonderful dialogue, the characters who unpeel like onions before your eyes, and action that punches from the shoulder and hip - the very technique Thomas Flynn taught young Chris - Mr. Pelecanos brings things off with bravura."—John Weisman, Washington Times

On Sale
Jan 13, 2011
Page Count
352 pages
Back Bay Books

George Pelecanos

About the Author

George Pelecanos is the bestselling author of twenty-two novels and story collections set in and around Washington, D.C. He is also a producer and Emmy-nominated writer of HBO's The WireTremeThe Deuce and We Own This City. He lives in Maryland.

Learn more about this author