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.
It is a harsh if telling speech. It is also one of the better ones in a novel that is largely dialogue-driven. Although there is a convincing grittiness about the narrative, and Vlautin is also balancing much of the harshness with a humanity that emerges as the novel’s redeeming strength, there is an unexpected inconsistency in the American English. At times the language, even in direct exchanges, is far more formal and wordy than spoken usage should be.
A young Native American boy who earlier announced that “Angel and me go everywhere together” is within a page saying “Angel and I had to get something to eat”. “Me and Angel needed to eat” would have sounded truer to character. There are many instances of dialogue that is stiff, falling flat on the ear, and it frequently fails to resonate off the page.
Elsewhere “Geez” is used by Mora, a minor character, which makes one wonder if this is a corruption of the by now very archaic “gee whiz” – or should it be “Jeez”, as in “Jesus”? American English in US fiction, particularly as published in British editions, is increasingly uneven, as it is suspended between two major if contrasting bases of the same language and has moved beyond vocabulary – “fridge” for “refrigerator”, and we have both in this novel – which compounds problems of language and usage.
It is surprising to see such linguistic inconsistencies in a Vlautin story, as he writes within a working-class register, an idiolect that he used far more effectively in his third novel, the former Impac contender Lean on Pete (2010), a superior work to this compelling if less cohesive narrative.
Among the challenges facing Vlautin here is that whereas in the early novel the narrative centred on an unforgettable central character, Charley Thompson, a teenager on a quest, The Free has two central characters, neither of whom is quite as strongly drawn.
Pauline sets out to save Jo, later known as Carol, a young girl patient whose personal story is one of drug addiction and sexual abuse. This introduces a shocking subplot that could have led further. The same applies when Freddie, a character of whom Vlautin could have made much more, allows a friend on his way to a prison term talk him into housing marijuana plants in the basement of the home Freddie is about to lose to debts.
The hapless Freddie, who once made an entire model of the Battle of Gettysburg and collects model trains, has far more potential as a character than the inert Leroy, who spends the novel in a catatonic state while his imagination runs riot in a dystopian, nightmarish dream sequence that, although framing the entire narrative, never convinces.
Leroy’s nightmare adventures, vivid as they are, merely deflect from the more interesting dilemmas facing Freddie and to some extent Pauline, who is permitted to tail off in a thinly presented new romance-on-her-terms speech. It is a far weaker resolution through redemption than Charley experiences in Lean on Pete.
Meanwhile, Freddie’s unexpected reunion with his daughters, cast off by a mother whose new relationship with a violent man is in crisis, is disconcertingly lacking in credible emotion, despite all the complications.
All in all there is a rushed feel to The Free, too many sketchy elements all suffering because of Leroy’s slow passage towards death. It is ironic that a character’s shadow nonlife could both fail to help him evolve into a real presence and distract from the further evolution of two characters, Pauline and, even more particularly, Freddie, either of whom could have nudged this touching but uneven novel on to a higher level.
The Free is not quite the novel it could have been, and it is disappointing, as there are moments of truth in it amid the polemics. Yet even so Vlautin’s surging humanity rings clear as a bell, as indeed does the moment of ordinary goodness when Pauline attempts to help a girl who simply cannot be saved.