Monday, May 10, 2010

Lean On Pete

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.)


Neil Crabtree said...

I am glad to hear you haven't given up on fiction altogether. I just finished writing my first novel Rooster and my story collection Believable Lies and the first thing an agent asks is what genre is my book. I told her I write books for grown-ups, those folks who made it from assasination to assasination and still didn't want to kill anybody. rejection slip in hand, I moved on to agent number 2. We'll see. I told her if she liked Tom Russell, she'll like Rooster. If not, she won't get it, won't have a clue. She did ask my favorite song and I told her "Tonight We Ride" and she agreed yes that is a fine song, so I think I've found someone to work with. When I get a galley copy, I'll send you one. It'll be good either on the bookshelf or the target range, depending.

David said...

Andrew Vachss "Haiku" in fiction and Charles Bowden "Murder City" in non fiction are my favorite reads in recent months....

Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

Howdy Tom

I really enjoy your music and blogs.
My father Jeff, turned me on to your records and many other great things including two of my favorite authors Cormac McCarthy's bloody fiction and Charles Bowden.

I have read Bowden's coffee table picture book [it's on my coffee table anyways] on the drug war around Juarez, a dangerous place to be a journalist or anyone else for that matter. My favorite book of Bowden's is "Some Of The Dead Are Still Breathing" which is a sort of a gonzo styled collection of poetic essays in which he describes in first person tales of excess, well written sex, seedy motel rooms, the passing of the american west, living with rattle snakes that never harm him and elephants being known to travel great distances in the disappearing wild to mourn a lost pack member. A good read in my humble opinion if anyone's interested.

Saddle Tramp said...

Absense Of The Hero ...

Resurecting Bukowski here for whom the track coursed through his veins like the wine from the night before. The above being the title of a new uncollection of stories and essays. Quoting the back cover:

" He loads his head full of coal and diamonds shoot out of his finger tips. What a trick. The mole genius has left us with another digest. It's a full house - read 'em and weep."

-Tom Waits

-saddle tramp
Via: Calle de Linea in Otay Mesa, CA unloading within a stone's throw away from that glistening stainless steel scar.

editor said...

Heard an NPR piece on Willy Vlautin and liked what I heard — a lot.

I'm in line for Murder City at the library. I like Charles Bowden, bleak as he may be.

Thom Jurek said...

Russell: Thanks for the tip on this cat and Zarzyski--and to think I almost gave up on reading live poets.

Now here's one for you--since I KNOW what you like: Breece D'J Pancake. He wrote a total of 12 stories before blowing his 26-year old Appalachian head off in 1979. Six published in the Atlantic, six unpublished until the book collected them. He was one real motherfucker and got to the blood and bone. Every bit as real as Blaze Foley in prose, man. --Jurek

Stephanie said...

I'm a student of Thad's, who turned me on to your blogs, which meant being turned on to Vlautin. Lean on Pete especially connected. I spent some time at Santa Anita, Delmar, Hollywood Park in my time in LA and have spent a lifetime with around young guys and horses, the guys as my students and teachers, the horses always as my teachers. Thanks so much. Hope I'll get to hear your music in person when you get to Portland. Have you read Kent Haruf's Plainsong?

Amy Dixon said...

One of the best books I've read this year is "Dope Thief" by Dennis Tafoya. It's a hard book to categorize; a crime novel, I guess. It has danger, philosophy, injury and forgiveness, and above all redemption. It's a very good story.

Other good works of fiction: "City of Thieves" by David Benioff. David Mitchell's new book "The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet." He spins a good yarn.