The Free by Willy Vlautin

6 Mar 2014

9780571300297The Free
Willy Vlautin
Faber & Faber, paperback, 288 pages,
£12.99, 978-0571300297


Tom Clayton

In 2006, Willy Vlautin released his first novel, The Motel Life. It focuses on the attempts of two brothers to escape the consequences of a hit-and-run accident, tracking them through a recognisably sparse version of America dotted with motels, truckstops and campgrounds. It is that rarest of things: a well-constructed and enjoyable book written by a popular musician, for Vlautin is also the lead vocalist and songwriter of alt-country outfit Richmond Fontaine. His skill as a narrator is perhaps unsurprising given the particular nature of his songwriting. Read through any of the lyric booklets from Richmond Fontaine’s records and you will find writing that seems closer to anecdote or prose poem, joined in the speakers by piano and brushed drums, to magical effect. The Motel Life won considerable and deserved praise from critics, and was followed by Northline in 2008 and Lean on Pete in 2010, both of which attracted similar admiration. It has been four years since that last novel, and three years since the last Richmond Fontaine record (The High Country in 2011), so it’s safe to assume that Vlautin’s latest work, The Free, has been something of a preoccupation. And you can see why.

While his previous works have riffed on the possibilities of escape, The Free introduces a group of characters who are anything but liberated; in fact, confinement is a key theme here. The novel begins with Iraq veteran Leroy Kervin briefly surfacing from a coma to experience a moment of clarity: ‘Suddenly he could think things through, he could put things together, where in the past years he’d been unable to.’ The newly-lucid Leroy then does something quite unexpected, swiftly quashing any nascent idea the reader might have of The Free being a road-to-recovery novel: he attempts suicide, and in a particularly nasty way, hurling himself down a flight of stairs onto some sharp fence-posts. The attempt fails, and when he wakes for a second time, he realises that ‘this time it was his fault. He’d failed, he was to blame.’ The majority of Leroy’s story then unfolds inside his mind, as he slips in and out of consciousness.

Leroy’s dream sequences run parallel to the other characters’ actions in the novel. So while his mother and his girlfriend Jeanette maintain a bedside vigil, the Jeanette in Leroy’s dream is the heroine of a possibly post-apocalyptic tale, in which those with ‘the mark’ (a gradually spreading bruise-like affliction) are hunted down by a violent extremist group known as ‘The Free’. There are certain recurring images in this dream: the Portuguese singer Amália Rodrigues, Rainier beer, shotguns and boats. There is also a strong suggestion that this netherworld may be under military rule. These sections are ambitious, blood-soaked, and not without a certain emotional clout, but they take up large sections of a small novel; one whose more compelling stories take place in the physical world.

Also looking in on Leroy are two characters that might be called typical of Vlautin. Freddie, the night-watchman from Leroy’s previous recovery home, is the man who discovers him after his suicide attempt, and continues to visit him. He spends his life working two jobs – during the night at the home, and at a paint store during the day – and sleeps whenever he can, at the counter, or in brief snatches at his house. There is one scene early in the novel in which he breaks down his finances on a piece of paper, falling hopelessly short of the amount needed to pay for his estranged daughter’s medical bills, or even his own upkeep. He is heartbreakingly stretched, and he knows it. His one confidant is Mora, the kindly proprietor of the doughnut store he stops off at between shifts, and it is she who witnesses his inevitable breakdown:

She walked out from behind the counter and went to him and put her arms around him. She smelled of donuts and soap and she was soft and warm. He collapsed into her and closed his eyes as two white work vans pulled in front of the donut shop with their headlights shining in on them.

Even here, at his most vulnerable, Freddie is still painfully exposed, the headlights making a cruel tableau of his grief. And when he is offered potential relief from his situation, the proposition comes so loaded with risk that we almost will him not to take it. Through Freddie, Vlautin tells us: being a good person sometimes isn’t enough. Yet there is always a sliver of hope, and that is enough for Freddie, as it so often is for us.

The other major character in The Free is Pauline, the nurse who is tasked with caring for Leroy in the recovery home. Her story is again one of quiet desperation: she works long hours, looks after her senile father when she is not at the hospital, and on her rare nights off she is taken out by her friends to be awkwardly match-made with truckers. Again, she is an inherently virtuous person; this is demonstrated in abundance when she tries to rescue one of her young patients, Jo, from a life of heroin addiction among a group of young vagrants. There is a particularly upsetting scene in which she arrives at the abandoned house where the gang is staying, only to find them gone, but with one left behind. He has frozen to death. In contrast, Pauline’s gently probing conversations with Jo in the hospital are delightful – she threatens to leave the NASCAR on the television if her patient doesn’t behave – and contain a subtlety and intimacy that is often buried underneath the widescreen tragedy of these characters’ stories. Pauline, unlike Freddie, is not yet worn down by her misfortune.

If all this sounds like a lot to cram into a three-hundred page novel, then you’d be right. There are big subjects here, too: the Iraq war, the American healthcare system and the economic climate. And though these themes are explored up to a point, The Free has a lot more to say about individuals, and the way we each find ways to confront adversity. But the central flaw of this book is that it feels rushed; there is often little time for contemplation before we are hurried on to the next seemingly hopeless situation. That said, there are moments when Vlautin finds a perfect balance between the right image and the right emotion. At one point Freddie is forced to give up his basement, and begins taking apart his prized civil war diorama:

[He] pushed one of the tables over and half of it crashed to the floor. Soldiers and trees and houses and buildings spilled on to the bare concrete, and tears welled in his eyes. He wanted to stomp on the buildings and papier maché mountains, but he couldn’t. He had worked so hard on them for so long.

I wished these characters had more time and space to develop, because they are frequently compelling. The three main characters could easily have inhabited three separate novels. Willy Vlautin has written wonderful books and will undoubtedly write them again, but this time he has over-reached, and unfortunately the effect is similar to that of playing a number of his songs over the top of each other. In the end, I wished The Free had been given more space to breathe: the prose equivalent of that piano, those brushed drums.


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