All the bro­ken peo­ple

Willy Vlautin writes nov­els and sings songs about the grow­ing dark­ness of Amer­i­can life

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - PATRICK FREYNE - WORDS BY PETER MUR­PHY

Willy Vlautin on the grow­ing dark­ness in Amer­i­can life

It’s a mark of how gen­tri­fied the pub­lish­ing in­dus­try has be­come that Willy Vlautin’s work ap­pears sin­gu­lar not be­cause of its style but its sub­ject mat­ter. His sto­ries – and they are sto­ries, he’s a tra­di­tion­al­ist – drama­tise the plight of those who ex­ist in the no-go zone be­tween work­ing poor and des­ti­tute. His char­ac­ters are al­ways strug­glers – and they of­ten lose. Some might call his work down­beat, even maudlin. Oth­ers will call him a re­al­ist.

Ei­ther way, Vlautin, a mu­si­cian and song­writer as well as a nov­el­ist – his long-term band Rich­mond Fon­taine re­cently re­tired af­ter 20 years on the road – sticks out in a cli­mate where only those with money can af­ford to pur­sue a writ­ing ca­reer in the high-priced ur­ban cen­tres.

Same goes for read­ers: if you’re work­ing two jobs to stay off the bread­line, it’s hard to find the leisure time to read and the dis­pos­able in­come to blow on hard­backs.

“I guess the ma­jor­ity of book-buy­ers are more mid­dle/up­per class,” Vlautin con­cedes when we catch up with him in the mid­dle of a teach­ing stint in coastal Ore­gon, “so I don’t think read­ing about work­ing-class peo­ple re­ally crosses their minds. In Amer­ica, the fu­ture of fic­tion is on mid­dle-aged women’s backs, they’re the ones that read it and care about it.

“I’ve had more than a few peo­ple come up to me and go, ‘It can’t re­ally be like this,’” he con­tin­ues. “In Reno, a lady said, ‘Guys don’t live like that, in mo­tels.’ I asked her the last time she was down­town in Reno and had stopped by any of those mo­tels, or just looked at them, and she goes, ‘Oh, I would never go down and see that stuff.’

“I just never un­der­stood why the check­out lady at a gro­cery store can’t be a hero. Why can’t the jan­i­tor be the hero for a change? Why can’t the house painter be a hero? That’s al­ways been my de­sire, strictly self­ishly, out of com­fort, ’cos I al­ways wanted to find a book where the writer said, ‘Hey, it’s okay if you work in a ware­house.’ I think I’ve spent my life try­ing to find those books, and then try­ing to write them.”

Vlautin’s par­tic­u­lar trick is graft­ing De­pres­sion-era sto­ry­telling con­ven­tions on to 21st cen­tury ter­rain. His most beloved book, Lean

On Pete, fo­cused on the re­la­tion­ship be­tween an as­pir­ing teenage foot­ball player and an over-the-hill race­horse. The film adap­ta­tion, di­rected by An­drew Haigh and star­ring, among oth­ers, Chloe Se­vi­gny and Steve Buscemi, will soon be re­leased.

Vlautin says of it: “You try to make sure your book will find the best home it can. It’s like you’re giv­ing your dog away, and you want to make sure it’s not go­ing to get the shit kicked

out of it. Oth­er­wise I sell it and run.”

Vlautin’s last book, The Free, was a stylis­tic de­par­ture in that it in­cor­po­rated el­e­ments of dystopian and spec­u­la­tive fic­tion. Since it was pub­lished in 2014, he ac­knowl­edges, ur­ban Amer­ica has in­creas­ingly started to look like scenes from Chil­dren of Men.

“Go­ing through Amer­i­can cities, there’s so many bro­ken peo­ple, peo­ple liv­ing on the street. And I just start think­ing about how it takes way more ef­fort to fix some­body than it takes to f**k ’em up. Once you break some­body, once they’re at the point of liv­ing on the streets, whether it’s men­tal ill­ness or what­ever, it’s re­ally hard to get them back into be­ing part of so­ci­ety.

“Where I grew up in Reno there was al­ways drifters, the old-school clas­sic guy be­tween 30 and 60, whether he was an al­co­holic or not, it was kind of a half-choice. And you never saw women, ever, on the streets. But I guess it was about 10 years ago I saw a mid­dle-aged cou­ple sleep­ing side by side on a sleep­ing bag in the door­way of a store down­town. And now, at least in Port­land, you see more and more women on the streets, tons of kids, and peo­ple who work or are phys­i­cally ca­pa­ble.”

The new novel, Don’t Skip Out On Me ,is clas­sic Vlautin, the tale of Ho­race Hop­per, a 21-year-old boxer who strug­gles with his own mixed-race iden­tity and a crush­ing sense of worth­less­ness, and who leaves the sta­bil­ity of a ranch job to prove him­self as a fighter in the big city.

Like all Vlautin’s books it’s easy to read – his prose is pre­cise and un­adorned, but bru­tal on the emo­tions.

“With Ho­race, his idea is like, the only way to be lov­able is to be great at some­thing, so he wants to be a cham­pion. It’s a kid idea, and a flawed idea, but it shows you where his head’s at. The Amer­i­can dream, the rein­ven­tion, is lonely with­out the com­mu­nity of your eth­nic iden­tity. Amer­i­can fam­i­lies get spread out more gen­er­ally, so you’re more iso­lated. Ho­race has no iden­tity, no cul­ture to fall back on. He was raised by a white grand­mother from eight years old to be ashamed of what he is, that he’s part Na­tive Amer­i­can. He doesn’t re­ally fit.”

So what drew Vlautin to write about the box­ing world?

“Reno, where I grew up, was a box­ing town, a mi­nor one, but they had some big fights. And my dad was re­ally into fights. But what got me was when I was in high school this Welsh boxer, Colin Jones, fought in Reno. And I read an ar­ti­cle in the pa­per that said he ran to work, dug graves by hand, and then ran home and trained. And I’m like, ‘God, I want to be that guy. I want to be a guy that’s so tough and not scared of ev­ery­thing and then runs to work and then he digs graves by hand!’ When you’re 13 or 14, you’re like, ‘Man, that’s dark and cool.’

“I was just a sad sack lis­ten­ing to Yes records in bed and hav­ing a hard time nav­i­gat­ing my world, and I wanted more than any­thing to be a guy that wasn’t scared.

“At around 18 I started sub­scrib­ing to Ring magazine, and each is­sue they’d have the life his­tory of a boxer, and I would guess 70 per cent of them are com­plete tragedies: ‘I come from a life of vi­o­lence, I have an ath­letic gift, I find a fa­ther fig­ure, a trainer, and by be­ing suc­cess­ful I find love and money.’ And then that dis­ap­pears, and they end up alone, punch drunk, liv­ing in a stu­dio apart­ment in a bad part of town.

“More than box­ing it­self, I think I was drawn to the tragedy of a guy try­ing as hard as he can and be­ing dis­ci­plined, and ru­in­ing his body and his mind to try to be some­body. He was a tougher ver­sion of my­self.”

■ Don’t Skip Out On Me is pub­lished by Faber & Faber. Willy Vlautin plays Cres­cent Arts Cen­tre, Belfast, Jan 28th; and Whe­lan’s, Dublin, Jan 29th

‘‘ Go­ing through Amer­i­can cities, there’s so many bro­ken peo­ple, peo­ple liv­ing on the street. And I just start think­ing about how it takes way more ef­fort to fix some­body than it takes to f**k ’em up


Left: Willy Vlautin: ‘I just never un­der­stood why the check­out lady at a gro­cery store can’t be a hero.’ Right: Vlaitin with his band Rich­mond Fon­taine, which re­cently called it a day af­ter 20 years on the road.

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