It was in the midst of a phone interview in Dublin or Belfast and the writer asked me if I’d heard of Willy Vlautin. Willy’s the leader of a band called Richmond Fontaine. I’d heard good things about the band, I said. “Well,” says the interviewer, “you ought to check out his novels. You’d appreciate his writing.” I winced. I’ve given up on current fiction. Most of it. Regardless of what the “New York Times” or “The New Yorker” may be laying on us, I don’t have time for the pretentious, vacuous cooing of the step-children of Joyce Carol Oates and Paul Auster. I usually give up after one page if I get the impression novelists are “writing At me,” with prose meant to impress with arch-style and form, rather than heartfelt content and well drawn believable characters. I don’t want to be constantly jerked out of the story in boredom and disgust. If there even IS a story. If I don’t care what the hell happens to the main characters or characters in a story I usually lay the book down or turn off the movie. I’d rather paint. You get the picture. Ditto songs and records.
But I got in touch with Willy Vlautin and he sent me his three novels. I’ve read “The Motel Life;” a damn good saga about the backside of Reno and two brothers living in seedy motels. I just finished Willy’s most recent book, “Lean on Pete,” about a kid who steals a broke-down race horse. Willy writes as if he’s the bastard child of Raymond Carver, with a little Salinger thrown into the mix. Other critics have mentioned Steinbeck. (Literary comparisons are a cheap shot. Sorry…they’re easy to toss around to make a quick point.) Willy Vlautin’s “voice” carries on the tone of the kid in Raymond Carver’s story: “Nobody Said Anything;” the voice of an American “kid” who’s telling us about his journey. Honest. Simple. It’s difficult to pull this off if you’re cute or insincere. Salinger slam-dunked the approach with “The Catcher in the Rye.” Holden Caulfield has our attention from the git-go with: “If you really want to hear about it….etc.” And then Holden’s breakdown spills out.
Willy told me he writes at the old Portland Meadows Race Track. Perfect. I believe the kid telling the tale in “Lean on Pete.” I grew up on the backside of Hollywood Park Race Track, and I’ve seen the hot walker and groom routine; and the junkies and winos and all the dirt of horse racing. I even owned a broke down race horse named “My Chief.” If our moral watchdogs think bullfighting is cruel, they ought to spend a season on the backside of a racetrack. And Willy Vlautin nails it.
Go get ‘em Willy. You’re a stretch runner.
(Also recommended: “The Circus at the Edge of the Earth” by Charles Wilkins. A non-fiction book on the Circus Wallenda.)