Looking up from a seemingly bottomless well, you can barely see a patch of blue. It appears hopeless. But there is a rope. And if you climb hand over fist, fist by fist, you may very well reach the top. Now the world you reach may not match your dreams, your idealized image of what you believed awaited you, but there it is. It comes close enough to comfort, close enough to a feeling of safety, that you embrace it. Maybe with some self-doubt. Was I worthy of attaining even this?
We’re plunged right away into Willy Vlautin’s world – a mix of hopefulness and loss. Charley Thompson wakes up to a blue-skied, sunny day in Portland where he and his dad have just moved from Spokane – by way of Wyoming. A picture on the wall tells us a story. His aunt is smiling. He’s smiling. He’s not seen her in four years.
Charley has a father, Ray, who is raising him as a single parent. Well, “raising” may be a stretch. Ray loves Charley in his way. It’s just that he’s not the fatherly type. He tends to get bored. Tends to move around some. Tends not to come home all the time. Charley is used to fending for himself, and is disarmingly sanguine about the prospects of making his way in this world through his own grit and indomitable will. But if he had his druthers, he’d be lying in bed, looking out the window at the blue sky in Wyoming, his aunt in the kitchen frying up eggs and bacon.
But he doesn’t. At least not yet. It’s cold spaghetti-o’s straight out of the can. Charley wrangles a job with a horseman by the name of Del Montgomery. Del pays him erratically, depending on how much he’s won betting on his own match races, or how drunk he is. Del is cruel to his horses, but knows them, and imparts some of that knowledge to Charley. Charley, though, can’t help but fall in love with a 5-year ol claiming horse, Lean On Pete. Pete’s been run into the ground by Del and has seen better days. When Charley gets wind that Del will be sending Pete off for slaughter in Mexico, he takes drastic steps. And the pilgrimage is on.
Willy Vlautin’s language is always spare and direct. Campfire conversational. And you could never tell it just by the words themselves, but the story we hear has a sweetly yearning undertone that stays with you long after the book is closed. A Vlautin trademark. Much of that feel here comes from the journey that Charley takes with Pete. Pete is Charley’s audience, his confessor. He’s a good listener, and Charley pours his heart out to Pete. Charley (dare I say it) leans on Pete. Charley just wants normalcy in his life, stability. When he tells Pete about the time he visited the Collin’s house, you can almost see his eyes brightening, whether from suppressed tears at the memory, or because of the sheer perfection of the scene he describes: the mom cooking pancakes, everyone sitting around the table laughing…
I told Pete how I almost called them one night a few weeks back, but that I didn’t want to beg them for anything or have his sisters know that I was living like I was. If they ever thought of me I’d rather have them think of me as alright. I’d rather never see them again than let them see me the way I was.
Charley is the youngest of WV’s down and outers so far, at fifteen there’s no hard drinking from his protagonists here, though others take up the slack. It’s almost as if WV has latched on to a character at the very crossroads of his life. If he makes it to his Aunt in Wyoming, he may just have a fighting chance for the life he yearns for. But if he doesn’t….
Charley’s a decent kid who just can’t catch a break. He’s innately honest and self-reliant, even as he’s forced to steal to eat. Charley is a kid you want to pull for. He’s amazingly adept at boosting a few cans of black beans or a jug of water to keep going. Then again, he’s mostly invisible to the rest of us, as are the main characters in WV’s other novels (The Motel Life, Northline). We hear a lot of talk about “Middle America”. But what about “Hidden America”? What about the day labourer grass cutters? What about the grooms at rundown race tracks? What about the waitresses, scrambling for tips? This is where Willy Vlautin lives and writes, and these are his people.
At one point Ray (Charley’s father) tells him that “All the best women have been waitresses at one point.” And you know? This just may be true.