Chronicler of mean streets, rough sleepers and broken people
Willy Vlautin writes novels and sings songs about the growing darkness of American life
Willy Vlautin: songs and stories of the hard life, pictured in Dublin. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
It’s a mark of how gentrified the publishing industry has become that Willy Vlautin’s work appears singular not because of its style but its subject matter. His stories – and they are stories, he’s a traditionalist – dramatise the plight of those who exist in the no-go zone between working poor and destitute. His characters are always strugglers – and they often lose. Some might call his work downbeat, even maudlin. Others will call him a realist.
Either way, Vlautin, a musician and songwriter as well as a novelist – his long-term band Richmond Fontaine recently retired after 20 years on the road – sticks out in a climate where only those with money can afford to pursue a writing career in the high-priced urban centres.
Same goes for readers: if you’re working two jobs to stay off the breadline, it’s hard to find the leisure time to read and the disposable income to blow on hardbacks.
“I guess the majority of book-buyers are more middle/upper class,” Vlautin concedes when we catch up with him in the middle of a teaching stint in coastal Oregon, “so I don’t think reading about working-class people really crosses their minds. In America, the future of fiction is on middle-aged women’s backs, they’re the ones that read it and care about it.
“I’ve had more than a few people come up to me and go, ‘It can’t really be like this,’” he continues. “In Reno, a lady said, ‘Guys don’t live like that, in motels.’ I asked her the last time she was downtown in Reno and had stopped by any of those motels, or just looked at them, and she goes, ‘Oh, I would never go down and see that stuff.’
“I just never understood why the checkout lady at a grocery store can’t be a hero. Why can’t the janitor be the hero for a change? Why can’t the house painter be a hero? That’s always been my desire, strictly selfishly, out of comfort, ’cos I always wanted to find a book where the writer said, ‘Hey, it’s okay if you work in a warehouse.’ I think I’ve spent my life trying to find those books, and then trying to write them.”
Vlautin’s particular trick is grafting Depression-era storytelling conventions on to 21st century terrain. His most beloved book, Lean On Pete, focused on the relationship between an aspiring teenage football player and an over-the-hill racehorse. The film adaptation, directed by Andrew Haigh and starring, among others, Chloe Sevigny and Steve Buscemi, will soon be released.
Vlautin says of it: “You try to make sure your book will find the best home it can. It’s like you’re giving your dog away, and you want to make sure it’s not going to get the shit kicked out of it. Otherwise I sell it and run.”
Vlautin’s last book, The Free, was a stylistic departure in that it incorporated elements of dystopian and speculative fiction. Since it was published in 2014, he acknowledges, urban America has increasingly started to look like scenes from Children of Men.
“Going through American cities, there’s so many broken people, people living on the street. And I just start thinking about how it takes way more effort to fix somebody than it takes to f**k ’em up. Once you break somebody, once they’re at the point of living on the streets, whether it’s mental illness or whatever, it’s really hard to get them back into being part of society.
“Where I grew up in Reno there was always drifters, the old-school classic guy between 30 and 60, whether he was an alcoholic or not, it was kind of a half-choice. And you never saw women, ever, on the streets. But I guess it was about 10 years ago I saw a middle-aged couple sleeping side by side on a sleeping bag in the doorway of a store downtown. And now, at least in Portland, you see more and more women on the streets, tons of kids, and people who work or are physically capable.”
The new novel, Don’t Skip Out On Me, is classic Vlautin, the tale of Horace Hopper, a 21-year-old boxer who struggles with his own mixed-race identity and a crushing sense of worthlessness, and who leaves the stability of a ranch job to prove himself as a fighter in the big city.
Like all Vlautin’s books it’s easy to read – his prose is precise and unadorned, but brutal on the emotions.
“With Horace, his idea is like, the only way to be lovable is to be great at something, so he wants to be a champion. It’s a kid idea, and a flawed idea, but it shows you where his head’s at. The American dream, the reinvention, is lonely without the community of your ethnic identity. American families get spread out more generally, so you’re more isolated. Horace has no identity, no culture to fall back on. He was raised by a white grandmother from eight years old to be ashamed of what he is, that he’s part Native American. He doesn’t really fit.”
So what drew Vlautin to write about the boxing world?
“Reno, where I grew up, was a boxing town, a minor one, but they had some big fights. And my dad was really into fights. But what got me was when I was in high school this Welsh boxer, Colin Jones, fought in Reno. And I read an article in the paper that said he ran to work, dug graves by hand, and then ran home and trained. And I’m like, ‘God, I want to be that guy. I want to be a guy that’s so tough and not scared of everything and then runs to work and then he digs graves by hand!’ When you’re 13 or 14, you’re like, ‘Man, that’s dark and cool.’
“I was just a sad sack listening to Yes records in bed and having a hard time navigating my world, and I wanted more than anything to be a guy that wasn’t scared.
“At around 18 I started subscribing to Ring magazine, and each issue they’d have the life history of a boxer, and I would guess 70 per cent of them are complete tragedies: ‘I come from a life of violence, I have an athletic gift, I find a father figure, a trainer, and by being successful I find love and money.’ And then that disappears, and they end up alone, punch drunk, living in a studio apartment in a bad part of town.
“More than boxing itself, I think I was drawn to the tragedy of a guy trying as hard as he can and being disciplined, and ruining his body and his mind to try to be somebody. He was a tougher version of myself.”
Don’t Skip Out On Me is published by Faber & Faber. Willy Vlautin plays Coughlan’s in Cork on January 25th; Crescent Arts Centre, Belfast, January 28th; and Whelan’s, Dublin, January 29th