Small mo­ments of con­nec­tion

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

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

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