Small moments of connection
IN his first three novels, The Motel Life (2006), Northline (2008) and the small masterpiece Lean on Pete (2010), Willy Vlautin established himself as one of the foremost chroniclers of contemporary life for America’s less fortunate, depicting the worlds of parentless children, alcoholic teenagers and small-time losers that populate his fiction with often painful honesty and compassion.
His new novel, The Free, inhabits this same territory. Yet as its title suggests it is also a more ambitious and expansive book, engaged, at least tangentially, with a series of questions about the gulf between the exalted ideals of the American dream and reality and the legacy of the US’s military adventures in Afghanistan and Iraq.
At its centre is Leroy Kervin, a former National Guardsman who was injured in Iraq. As the novel opens, Leroy — confined to a nursing home and barely able to speak or hold a fork — experiences a rare moment of lucidity and, realising the future holds nothing but more confusion and suffering, decides to commit suicide by hurling himself down the stairs.
Grievously injured, Leroy is rushed to the local hospital, where doctors manage to save his life, or what’s left of it. Now on a ventilator, he is moved to a ward where, after another brief moment of clarity, he slips out of consciousness and into an increasingly disturbed sequence of dreams in which he and his ex-girlfriend are pursued through a ruined and divided US by a right-wing militia called The Free.
Around the story of Leroy’s attempted suicide and fever dreams are wound two more narratives. The first focuses on the nightwatchman from Leroy’s nursing home, Freddie McCall. Recently separated from his wife, who has moved to Las Vegas with their two daughters, Freddie is working two jobs in a futile attempt to keep ahead of the debt incurred by his younger daughter’s medical treatment.
Alternating between a day job in a hardware store and his night job at the nursing home, Freddie’s days and nights pass in a haze of exhaustion. Yet he still finds time to visit Leroy in hospital whenever he can, stopping only when his wife calls him and asks him to come and take his daughters because she no longer wants them.
The second narrative concerns Pauline Hawkins, the nurse who admits Leroy to hospital after his suicide attempt. Unlike Freddie, Pauline is single by choice as much as circumstance, her life lived in the shadow of her role as carer to her increasingly difficult father and shadowed by the memory of the mother who abandoned them both.
Although Leroy remains a continuing presence in the sections concerning Freddie, mostly because of Freddie’s determination to keep visiting him, for Pauline he is one patient among many, even after she becomes friendly with his mother. Instead, the sections about her concentrate on her relationship with her father and her
THE REALITY OF LIFE FOR ALL THE CHARACTERS IS ALMOST UNBEARABLE
attempts to save a teenage runaway admitted for treatment to her ulcerated legs.
Like Vlautin’s previous novels, The Free is distinguished by the depth of sympathy it extends to its characters, documenting the day-today business of their lives and the moments of courage and despair that punctuate them with an unshowy directness that lends them a dignity. The reality of life for all the characters in The Free is almost unbearable, yet with the exception of Leroy, who has been damaged beyond endurance, each keeps getting up and going on, sustained by routine and small moments of connection.
It’s a feat that depends at least in part on Vlautin’s prose, which eschews the craftedness and stylistic perfection fetishised by many literary writers in favour of something simpler and less polished. The result is a prose that sounds almost naive, constructed from short, declarative sentences, deliberate repetitions and dialogue that frequently hovers on the edge of awkward yet lends the events described a wrenching ordinariness and immediacy that a more aestheticised prose may dilute or obscure.
This seeming artlessness also disguises the sophistication with which the novel as a whole has been constructed, and the delicacy with which Vlautin allows the elements that underpin the various narratives to reflect and reinforce each other. Many of these elements will be familiar from Vlautin’s earlier novels: negligent and unreliable or unstable parents, the vulnerability of children, the tendency of some people to exploit those weaker than themselves, associations that are no doubt deliberate.
Yet while there is a level at which The Free’s most obvious innovation — the long sections detailing Leroy’s dreams — may also be read as an echo of the fantasy sequences in Northline, in which the damaged girl at the novel’s centre conducts imaginary conversations with Paul Newman, in fact they gesture towards something larger and less resolved.
For in the dreams, and in the juxtaposition between them and the stories of Freddie and Pauline, it is possible to glimpse something of the way reality and fantasy collide in contemporary America and the degree to which those fantasies are isolated from the truth of everyday life. James Bradley is a writer and critic. He blogs at cityoftongues.com.
Willy Vlautin’s prose lends events a wrenching ordinariness while disguising his sophistication