“Burke shows again that he’s not just a comic genius, but also a fine dramatic writer and storyteller.” – Booklist. “Prose both scabrous and poetic.” – Publishers Weekly. “Proust meets Chandler over a pint of Guinness.” – Spectator. “Among the most memorable books of the year, of any genre.” – Sunday Times. “A hardboiled delight.” – Guardian. “Imagine Donald Westlake and Richard Stark collaborating on a screwball noir.” – Kirkus Reviews. “A cross between Raymond Chandler and Flann O’Brien.” – John Banville.
Wednesday, January 29, 2014
Review: THE FREE by Willy Vlautin
Once best known as a singer-songwriter with the alt-country outfit Richmond Fontaine, Willy Vlautin has garnered an increasingly impressive reputation as a novelist since the release of his debut, The Motel Life (2006). His fourth book, The Free, is set in the American northwest, and opens with wounded soldier Leroy Kervin, a veteran of the Iraq conflict, attempting to commit suicide during a rare moment of clarity.
Leroy fails in his bid but remains in a coma in hospital, which allows Vlautin to introduce characters who are directly affected by Leroy’s actions. Pauline, a hard-pressed hospital nurse who cares for her housebound father and tries to help a vulnerable patient, the teenage girl Jo, to escape the clutches of a group of heroin addicts; and Freddie, who works a nightshift at the group home where Leroy lived while also holding down a day job at a paint store. Meanwhile, Leroy’s comatose mind drifts into the realms of fantasy as he imagines himself on the run in a post-apocalyptic America, where vigilantes roam the streets killing people stained with ‘the mark’.
The Free is an ironic title here, given that Vlautin’s story revolves around characters who live regimented lives in which every minute and every last cent must be accounted for. The hardworking Freddie and Pauline are victims of the economic crash and personal circumstance: Pauline supports her helpless father, while Freddie remortgages his house twice to pay for his daughter’s medical bills. Told in the ‘dirty realist’ style that evokes the spirit of Raymond Carver, the novel is a litany of tiny tragedies that brilliantly evokes the soul-destroying monotony of functioning poverty.
If it’s a bleak read in that respect, The Free is nevertheless an uplifting tale. Not only do the debt-ridden Freddie and Pauline rarely complain about their daily drudge, they also find it within them to stretch their personal resources to breaking point by investing themselves emotionally in other people. Pauline’s repeated attempts to rescue Jo add an unnecessary strain on her already overloaded schedule, while Freddie finds time to visit Leroy in hospital, and further tries to help out an old friend who is going to prison.
There is a danger, of course, that Vlautin’s variations on the theme of the kindness of strangers might render Pauline and Freddie secular saints, but he never mistakes sentiment for sentimentality. Both characters are aware of their own failings and shortcomings, and are likeably honest about their limitations.
The downbeat, fatalistic tone (and the dystopian strain to Leroy’s sci-fi fantasy) suggests that Vlautin has in mind here a commentary on how the US government has abandoned its responsibility to its own citizens over the last decade. What makes The Free a compelling read, however, is the way in which he celebrates the indomitable spirit and invisible heroics of those refuse to accept an imposed bondage in the land of the brave and the home of the free. ~ Declan Burke
This review was first published in the Irish Independent.