Redemption is a brief pit stop in the world of George Pelecanos. His characters hover between sin and salvation, prison and freedom. Even when the choices seem generated by formula, they have a great deal of power over these men, young District Of Columbia denizens treading a narrow path of legitimate opportunity through a Red Sea of crime and poverty. In The Way Home, Pelecanos focuses on the threat the juvenile detention system poses to a working-class boy who can choose the promise of his upbringing or the code of his criminal peers. It isn’t Pelecanos’ most fully formed work, but his stark vision of a endless existential crisis hasn’t yet lost its freshness.

In the first section of The Way Home, Chris Flynn, the son of a former police officer who now runs a carpet business, descends into an adolescent spiral of drugs, gangster ethics, and the general sullenness of adolescence. After assaulting a rich kid over a fender-bender and leading the police on a high-speed chase, the 17-year-old is sentenced to juvie in Maryland, where he decides to bury “Bad Chris” and turn his life around. The longest section outlines the crisis of conscience he faces when, working with a jailhouse mate, he uncovers a duffel bag full of cash hidden under the floorboards of an empty house. Although he persuades his friend not to take it, the friend brags about it to another former inmate, who does. Then some scary people come after all of them.

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Attached to this somewhat standard tale of coincidence and malice aforethought is a powerful sense of parental anxiety. Pelecanos flashes back to Chris’ childhood, when his father taught him a few police communication codes. “It’s no Signal 13,” Chris would joke, referring to an emergency shorthand, if his dad expressed concern over some problem. In the book’s final section, as Chris decides how to deal with the threats assailing him in spite of his determination to stay clean, he texts “Signal 13” to his father—a plea for help from a man suddenly in the position of a child needing his father. Moments like this keep Pelecanos’ story gripping even when the series of crossroads grows repetitive.