Every year, the SXSW festival posts one song from every band that plays the week-long shindig in Austin. There are at least a 1,000 songs to go through—sometimes more. I listen. A couple years ago, “Post to Wire” popped out. It was by a band called Richmond Fontaine. I didn’t pay too much attention or do much digging—I just enjoyed the bouncy-but-haunting duet. It’s 2:13 of pure bliss—a minimalist story with a nifty melody.
And then earlier this year, I was listening to an Authors on Tour podcast and up pops a guy named Willy Vlautin, introduced at The Tattered Cover as the lead singer of Richmond Fontaine. What?
Vlautin was on tour with his new novel, The Free. By the time the podcast was over and after I’d heard Vlautin read a matter-of-fact selection, I knew I liked his writing style.
I started with Lean on Pete and glad I did. Vlautin’s style is calm and clear-eyed. Zero flash. The prose is dry-eyed.
The opening lines: “When I woke up that morning it was still pretty early. Summer had just begun and form where I lay in my sleeping bag I could see out the window. There were hardly any clouds and the sky was clear and blue.”
The narrator is fifteen-year-old Charley Thompson. He has just moved to Portland, Oregon from Spokane, Washington. He’s with his father. Well, sort of. They are in a rundown house next to a trailer park. There are promises of getting a barbecue and a dog, but his father starts getting tangled up with the secretary in the front office where he works as fork lift driver. Soon, Charley has no food and no money and his father isn’t coming home. Charley dreams of playing football for the new high school. His speed as a runner helps when it comes time to steal cans of soup from the grocery store.
Lean on Pete is the name of a horse at the Portland Meadows racetrack. He’s owned by a 70-year-old guy named Del. “He smelled like beer and his eyes were bloodshot and glassy. He had a big gut and was going bald. The hair he did have was mostly gray on the sides and he had it greased back. His right arm was in a cast and he was chewing tobacco.” Del has a flat tire but, with only one arm, needs help.
Soon Charley is in the thick in the world of horses and racing—but in Del’s version of the sport it’s all down and dirty. Del doesn’t give Charley all that he deserves or what he has worked for, but Charley keeps hoping. Life and luck are day-to-day. Drinking never stops. Charley tries hard to find the gears that will kick his life into a smooth ride, but it’s all a grind. Without giving too much away, soon Charley and Lean on Pete are off on their own—running—for many reasons.
Keeping them both in fuel and food is a constant challenge. Charley sets a course for a long-lost aunt who lives somewhere in Wyoming. Charley is resourceful. He needs what we all need. He must quickly size up strangers. H must quickly measure risk and reward. But you can only test your luck for so long before the hard world takes its toll.
Lean on Pete is searingly human and original. Comparisons to Steinbeck and Carver are apt. The ending is about as well-crafted and touching, without giving an ounce away to sentimentality, as any book I’ve read in a long, long time.
I don’t care anymore who was right
And who was wrong and who was left and who was leaving
I’ll overlook everything if you can overlook everything
I know you’re worn out but you know I’m worn out too
If everyone screws up and I know that we both do
Doesn’t it make sense me with you?
If you and me if we blow it when it’s
The last thing we should do
Don’t you think we should stick together?
Don’t you think we should be the ones who go
Post to wire months to years
Days to nights and minutes to hours?