I’m stealing two words from a fellow reviewer who described Willy Vlautin’s works as “harsh realism.” I’ve read the four previous novels—The Motel Life, Northline, Lean on Pete and The Free. They are all my favorite. (Yeah, that’s how much I like this guy’s work.)
Now, Don’t Skip Out On Me. There is no letdown. Only another entry in a series of books that cast their gaze on the overlooked and downtrodden. The under-under class. Only another entry in a series of books that features the hopes and dreams—and dashed expectations—of people who struggle through life without much more than their wits and their decency, their essential humanity. Northline might have been the bleakest to date; this one is even sadder. Vlautin digs the small gestures, the everyday heroics of people making their way in a challenging world. You will love the characters and then you will ache when stuff happens to them. Vlautin also digs food. There will always be food and it will be consumed and referenced in careful detail.
Vlautin writes like a dry documentarian. This happened. That happened. “Horace Hopper opened his eyes and looked at the clock: five a.m. The first thought that came to him that morning was his mother, whom he hadn’t seen in nearly three years.” Those are the opening lines. A page later, “He set a kettle on the propane stove, made instant coffee, scrambled four eggs, and then took them outside to eat at a picnic table in the blue of the morning.” (The food, the food…)
Don’t Skip Out On Me is the story of Horace Hopper, the longtime ranch hand in Nevada who wants to leave the ranch and the couple that has lovingly taken him in. Horace wants to become a boxer. He also wants to find his true home (another Vlautin undercurrent) and himself. Horace is half-Paiute and half-Irish. He doesn’t know where he belongs, but knows he’s not finding what he wants.
Vlautin gives us the ranchers, too—Mr. and Mrs. Reese. They also struggle with just about everything and know they won’t do well when Horace leaves, but they let him go. The sections with Mr. Reese are as touching in a way that reminded me of Kent Haruf or John Steinbeck. When Horace starts fighting, having strapped on the identity of Mexican boxer Hector Hidalgo, the prose is equally unsentimental and vivid in a black-and-white way, like “Raging Bull.” There is a love story and Greyhound buses and classy restaurants like Howard Johnson. Horace’s trajectory is bleak. He gets hurt in the ring and then hurts some more. The ending (bit of a spoiler) is as sad as, say “Midnight Cowboy,” another story of loneliness and grit.
The more Horace travels and the more he sees, the more lost he feels. But Horace tries to keep in mind the advice from Mr. Reese that being “honorable and truthful” can take the sting out of life. “Mr. Reese said liars and cowards were the worst people to know because they broke your heart in a world that is built to break your heart,” Horace thinks. “They poured gas on an already cruel and barely controllable fire.”
As summaries go, that is Willy Vlautin’s stories in a nutshell—ordinary people moving through an “already cruel” world and finding themselves even more discouraged. And down. Vlautin’s stuff is simultaneously bleak, uplifting and moving. Don’t Skip Out On Me is another worthy entry, loaded with harsh, unflinching realism of real people and their real dreams.
A partial list of writers who have praised Vlautin’s work: Craig Johnson, Ann Patchett, Urusula K. Le Guin, Cheryl Strayed, George Pelecanos, Tom Franklin, Patterson Hood (Drive-By Truckers), and Hannah Tinti. Enough said.