Melancholy. Lonesome. Spare. Downcast.
It’s also beautiful—a strumming guitar and a sorrowful pedal steel.
Willy Vlautin is a musician, too; he heads up the band Richmond Fontaine (a band allegedly now on their farewell tour).
He wrote them in this order: The Motel Life, Northline, Lean on Pete and The Free.
I’m glad I read Northline last—it’s a sad one.
What I love about Vlautin is his empathy for the downtrodden, those shuffling around in the dark corners. There’s always hope, however, and Vlautin’s characters hang by the thinnest thread. In Northline, for young woman on the run and would-be waitress Allison Johnson, it’s her fantasy conversations with Paul Newman and the characters he played.
The title comes from her boyfriend, who wants her to join him on a trek to a new life. “I’ve decided I really am gonna be moving North,” he writes to her in a letter. “Like I always wanted. Just draw a line and go. A Northline. The farther north, the better. Away from everyone.” Around the corner in all of Vlautin’s work is the hope of a new life, of cutting loose, of starting over.
But Jimmy Bodie is a racist. He’s a hater. He’s abused her. He’s taken her to skinhead parties. There’s no reason to think he would care. Allison is on the run, and hiding, throughout Northline. She works the graveyard shift as a waitress, takes a job doing cold calls trying to sell vacuum cleaners.
I won’t go into all the gritty situations she encounters. Allison is up against life. It’s battering her around. And we get some familiar Vlautin themes—thoughts of suicide, cold streets, bleak motel rooms, limited choices, bad decisions, bad company. But not all. There’s a touch of warmth here, a splash of humanity here. Always.
Vlautin’s prose is some of the most unvarnished, plain stuff around. I highly recommend listening to Vlautin read The Free (the only book on audio so far) if you want an idea of the plain-spoken way he intends for it to be read.
“The room had a double bed, a desk, a dresser, a TV, and a bathroom. She’d never been in a motel room by herself, let alone in a city. She’d barely even left Las Vegas and now she’d done so by herself. The crying wouldn’t stop. She shut off the lights in the room and go in bed still wearing her clothes. Pictures of Jimmy appeared in her mind. The time he had gotten them a suite at Caesars, or when they’d go swimming in the lake. Times when he was decent to her, when he was kind. In the darkness she found the phone. It sat on a bedside table and she held it. She wanted to call him, to give in, but she also hated herself for not wanting to so badly.”
Check the range of praise for Vlautin—from mystery writer Craig Johnson to sci-fi legend Ursula K. Le Guin, from Tom Franklin to Ann Patchett, from George Pelecanos to Cheryl Strayed.
Vlautin’s stuff is addictive but heroes are few and far between.
As the fantasy “Paul Newman” tells Allison Johnson, “People do their worst when they’re weak.”
And Willy Vlautin likes to watch. And write.