Character flaws hurt a moving tale
Humanity alleviates the harshness in Willy Vlautin’s flawed portrait of a damaged US
A sign marking the number of US soldiers who have been killed or wounded during the war in Iraq on Santa Monica Beach, California, in 2007. Willy Vlautin’s characters are trying to survive in the aftermath of the Iraq conflict, with its disturbing echoes of previous misguided engagements. Photograph: Gabriel Bouys / AFP / Getty Images
Pauline is a nurse, big-hearted and kind, a person who refers to most people as “buster” and has managed to master her demons. She wants to help others and has even rescued an abandoned pet rabbit. Pauline is wary of personal relationships, and when she is not caring for her patients she battles to tend her father. He is a difficult old guy who years before had scared Pauline’s mother away. Now he just watches TV all day and night, is none too keen on personal hygiene and will eat only junk food.
This ambitious fourth novel by the musician Willy Vlautin goes straight to the core of blue-collar United States. His characters are trying to survive in the aftermath of the Iraq conflict, with its disturbing echoes of previous misguided engagements, such as Afghanistan and Vietnam, and a new generation of damaged war veterans.
One such returned soldier is young Leroy Kervin, who like so many others should never have been in Iraq in the first place. The narrative is shaped by Leroy’s private hell. Barely healed from injuries sustained in an explosion, he then decides to kill himself in a dramatic opening scene. He is found by another character, Freddie McCall, the nightwatchman of the group home facility for disabled servicemen in which Leroy is living.
Set in a small town in Washington state, The Free is about the now and a United States dealing with a faltering economy. Freddie has two jobs: by night he is at the home, ever on the alert for an outburst that invariably ends up in hospital; by day he manages a builders’-supply paint store. He has worked there since he was a boy. His first boss was the original owner. But that man has since died, and Freddie deals instead with the son, Pat Logan, a stock selfish figure concerned only with the day’s takings and with shoving his meals into the microwave in time for lunch.
Vlautin initially zooms in close on his central characters as if he were a film-maker; they are all talkers, so we receive generous information. Food is central for Pauline; she eats a great deal of it on her own, or as she walks from one chore to the next. It is through her dealings with her father that Vlautin most fully establishes the tough love that defines her character.
Having yet again had to endure him telling her that she is fat and should have had children, she explodes: “Then listen to me, buster . . . I’m not just threatening this, but if you say anything like that to me again you can walk home, and you can pay your own bills. You can live on the street, and I won’t care. You don’t tell me what to do. That’s the deal. That’s the only deal there will ever be for you and me. Besides telling you to take a shower and eat I leave you alone. When you start paying your own bills again you can tell me to lose weight and marry some dumb shit, but until then you keep your mouth shut.” She then walks out of the pizza parlour they had been sitting in.