I listened to The Free on audio CD. Willy Vlautin’s narration of his own novel is as matter-of-fact as his prose. He reads in a dry but empathetic fashion, no flash. The writing looks simple on the page and Vlautin’s reading is equally vanilla. Steady. But there’s an inexorable tug to the undertow.
Willy Vlautin, whether reading or writing, has the ability to put a reader in a trance.
The Free is the story of a brain-damaged Iraq war veteran (Leroy Kervin, who tries to commit suicide), a nurse (Pauline Hawkins), and the night manager of the group home (Freddie McCall) where the veteran lives. As their lives intertwine, they struggle with All-American doses of everyday reality—the health care system, mounting debt, addictions, loneliness.
“Freddie arrived at the group home that night in such a state of exhaustion he could hardly do his chores.”
“Pauline walked down the sixth-floor hall and entered room 3, Mrs. Dawson. She helped her from her bed and walked her up and down the hall, and when she was finished she clocked out for dinner break.”
“He opened his eyes to see a brown-haired nurse in the corner of the room. She stared out the window into the parking lot. It was night and the main room lights were off. He could hear her sobs and could see her wiping her tears while she looked at her wristwatch.”
Vlautin’s characters are very much in the “now.” They might have a dream or something out there they might wish to do or a place to reach, but the narrative stays close to the next minute and the next. There are no big schemes or plans.
Vlautin people seem naturally propelled by their circumstances. The narrative style only affords us brief glimpses of the character’s thoughts—most of the point of view and attitudes are rendered in detail of the surroundings and movements. Vlautin is the tireless documentarian, although he flashes a distinctly different style in recounting the drug-hazy and wild fantasy life where Leroy occasionally heads, in his mind.
Despair rules but hope gets a chance, every now and then, to flash its stuff.