The fiction of rock musician-turned-novelist Willy Vlautin is populated by worriers. The word itself comes up less in his fourth novel, The Free, than in his first, The Motel Life. But all seven of his protagonists are haunted by worry‑-the two orphaned brothers in The Motel Life; the abused waitress in Northline; the orphaned 15-year-old racetrack hand in Lean on Pete; the brain-damaged Iraq veteran, the paint store manager, and quite often the nurse in The Free. What sets these characters worrying is personal‑-dead parents, dysfunctional family members, medical disasters, horrible luck, brutalities suffered and seen, money pure and simple. But crumbling beneath these fractured foundations, an extra level of structural decay, is class. You could call Vlautin’s people working class because most of them have jobs or can find menial work when they need it. But all inhabit a world in which the working class is so marginalized it’s barely a class at all. The only one who doesn’t worry continually, the nurse, is also the only one with what is called a marketable skill.
You could also put the class question another way: except perhaps for the Laramie librarian who rescues her nephew in Lean on Pete, it’s impossible to imagine any of Vlautin’s characters reading The Barnes & Noble Review. These are not our people, people. Only they are, and not just as fellow citizens whose well-being inflects the health and legitimacy of the so-called humanities that provide our pleasure and solace. They too find succor in the arts. The Motel Life‘s narrator tells stories to calm his tortured older brother, a Willie Nelson fan whose drawings front each chapter, and one thing they look for in a motel is HBO. The waitress’s life coach is the Paul Newman in her head who stops by for an occasional chat. Iraq veteran Leroy Kervin picked up a passion for the saudade of fado icon Amalia Rodrigues from his Vietnam-vet uncle and developed one of his own for science fiction, which in turn frames the dreams that fill 30 pages of The Free.
Leroy’s dreams fuel a formal leap anticipated by the way The Motel Life’s Frank spices up his free-form adventure yarns with aliens and other supernatural stuff. They’re autobiographical parables that broaden Vlautin’s commitment to a naturalism that on its own is as just-the-facts as a police procedural, although full of internal monologue whether first-person or third-person. Nevada-raised and Oregon-based, Vlautin says it was Raymond Carver who convinced him he could take the stories he’d always written public, and seems awestruck by Charles Bukowski and Bukowski’s literary beau ideal John Fante. But Vlautin’s turf is his own. Bukowski and Fante’s wittingly crude fiction stars down-and-out writers very much like themselves, and while a few of Carver’s stories recall Vlautin’s world, Carver’s typical milieu is a rung or three more genteel than Vlautin’s, in part because that was his own milieu and in part because he was writing before the great marginalization took effect. And one more thing‑-a big one. Vlautin is more compassionate than any of these influences. He respects his characters’ need for both dreams and raw hope. He has heart.
At just under three hundred pages, The Free is the longest of Vlautin’s novels. And due to its high-functioning dream sequences, which clarify the real-world action, and multi-protagonist structure, which rotates chapters among three related characters, it’s also the most ambitious. That doesn’t make it the best‑-glancing through the back half of Lean on Pete, an account of the racetrack kid’s month-long runaway adventure from Portland to Laramie that I can’t call bravura because that’s just not Vlautin’s way, I couldn’t resist rereading most of it word for word. But The Free boasts one new feature that some will believe soften it and I consider another leap. Put plainly, all three of his protagonists are Good.
The conviction that we are flawed beings looms as large in literary appreciation as it does in Roman Catholicism‑-so large that it’s long since become a cliché of its own. And hey, we are, which Vlautin knows as well as Bukowski or W.H. Auden. Although the Reno-rooted The Motel Life is more about luck than virtue, its two brothers are hard-drinking losers; Northline‘s Allison is weak-willed and self-pitying; Lean on Pete‘s Charley steals to eat without feeling bad about it and brains a street predator with a tire iron. And by the way, although Charley’s wastrel father could have been a lot kinder, he had his moments, and certainly didn’t deserve to get beaten to death by that jealous Samoan. Vlautin’s working assumption is that humans who do bad things often regret them, that the mean-spirited and worse are widely disliked and worse, that many people are as generous as is practical, and that a few are more generous than that. This view seems pretty realistic to me. So how come it sounds more like a self-help manual than serious fiction?
The formal inconvenience that conflict drives narrative, you could say. The psychological reality that many writers choose the work because they’re alienated and/or full of themselves. The cultural inevitability of art assuming high-church functions in a rationalist age. So then say Vlautin turns all this on its head not just by respecting the alienation of his endangered antiheroes but by using the power vested in him as a novelist to declare their struggles marks of sainthood. Granted a stray interlude of clarity, Leroy the veteran attempts a suicide that will free him and his loved ones from his life sentence of mental fog. Freddie the paint store manager, who moonlights in Leroy’s rehab facility so he can peck away at the 75 grand he owes on his daughter’s operations, adds to his wearying round by visiting Leroy in the hospital, maybe because he might have staved off his charge’s plunge down the stairs and maybe because Leroy reminds him of his daughter. Pauline the swing-shift nurse does her damnedest to save both Leroy and the young runaway Jo. And in recompense, Leroy is rewarded by the death that frees his mother and girlfriend from watching over him in perpetuity, Freddie is rewarded when his estranged wife’s return of his daughters helps him accept the loss of his family house, and Pauline is rewarded with a job at an elementary school and a boyfriend who accepts her need not to call him that.
That none of these outcomes are consummations to be wished is one reason the virtue rewarded of Vlautin’s schema doesn’t undermine the realism in which he’s aesthetically invested. There really are guys like Freddie, who feels guilty when he lets a pal move a pot farm to his basement and is happy to have his daughters’ care piled on his back, and even in this inhumane economy such guys do still sometimes get by. Moreover, Pauline isn’t the same kind of wimp or paragon as Freddie, although she cares faithfully for her crazy father and risks her life searching for Jo‑-at least she drinks, moderately, and her pragmatism about the uses of the opposite sex is more preemptive than need be. So in the end, it isn’t the Good who test our credulity in The Free‑-it’s the Evil.
The novel’s title is provided by Leroy’s dreams, in which he and his loyal Jeanette are hounded and ultimately defeated by vigilantes who call themselves The Free‑-vigilantes dedicated to exterminating everyone who wants to live as generously as is practical. This has the effect of framing the novel’s real-life bad guys too schematically. The villains aren’t the skedaddling spouses and boorish patients and tardy co-workers‑-except for the teenaged druggies who abuse the runaway, these are just flawed normals as far as Vlautin is concerned. The villains are the ones Freddie’s pot-farming associate calls “Bible eaters,” especially the runaway’s parents and the do-nothing James Dobson fan who inherited the paint store, plus maybe the gung-ho boss who pushed Leroy into the military. I share Vlautin’s prejudices here‑-in the absence of billionaire banksters, Christianists and NRA ideologues make excellent straw men. But fictionally they’re too pat.
Nevertheless, The Free builds on a body of work that’s earned more respect than it’s gotten. I’d reckon Vlautin an important and arguably major American novelist. But I bet The Motel Life would never have been published if he didn’t also lead a band called Richmond Fontaine, which has been recording albums and enlarging its Northwest- and U.K.-based cult since 1994‑-never a large cult, but a true fanbase nonetheless, especially by the standards of the fiction world. Post-Lean on Pete I checked them out without bearing down. Clearly they were solider and deeper than norm of what I’ll call desert Americana. But in the end I found them unprepossessing, and to a lesser extent I still do. Vlautin has his vocal limitations, the band has its melodic limitations, and voice and melody are where his kind of alt-rock lives. But you have to let Americana as rough-hewn as Richmond Fontaine’s grow on you, and eventually I had to grant that there are strong songs everywhere in their catalogue. Start with 2006’s The Fitzgerald, named after a Reno casino now lost to Chapter 11, which adds choruses that stick to tales that sometimes sketch out material developed in Vlautin’s novels.
Indications are, however, that fiction is now Vlautin’s focus. Richmond Fontaine’s only new album since 2009, 2011’s The High Country, is a prematurely resolved concept album with too many of the instrumental interludes that fill out the band’s recent output. So while I hope the guy keeps up both his callings, fiction first seems like the right call to me. As he’s said, “I have the ability to be lighter as a novelist, where I’ve always had a hard time being easygoing in my songs.” That’s not the usual story in rock and roll, where beat and noise and tune regularly work alchemical transformations on grim lyrics. But it does locate how Richmond Fontaine’s rather dusty sound intersects with Vlautin’s bad nerves, and as he’s also said, it’s “one of the biggest failures” of his songwriting. Listening to The Fitzgerald, I feel the “broke and blown and lost and blue” “The Warehouse Life” and keep an ear out for the AWOL dead end of “Exit 194B.” But my favorite tracks are “Laramie, Wyoming,” a preliminary stab at Charley’s trek, and “The Janitor,” in which a beaten guy wins the heart of one of the beaten women Vlautin portrays with such sympathy. To borrow his metaphor, these songs “breathe a bit easier” than most of them do.
That breathing room is what Vlautin’s novels bring to the naturalism they emulate and elevate. He has no reason to be awestruck by anybody except the flawed heroes he imagines.