Odyssey of a wary teenager
Lean on Peteby Willy Vlautin Faber, 227pp, £12.99
CHARLEY AND his father have just moved to Portland, Oregon because there was a chance of a job as a forklift driver. They used to live in Wyoming. Charley remembers being happy there, but that was a while ago. A lot seems to have happened. The week before the novel begins they had left Spokane in a hurry: “We brought our kitchen table and four chairs, dishes and pots and pans, our clothes and TV, and my dad’s bed. We left all the rest.”
As Charley lies in his sleeping bag, trying to make sense of his life, it is so obvious that this is going to be a great story. Willy Vlautin is a musician and fronts country rock band Richmond Fontaine, he has a feel for words and most of all, a feel for America. His two previous novels, The Motel Life (2006) and Northline (2008), captured that sense of life dripping away. He makes you listen. This time, in young Charley Thompson, 15 years old and sustained only by his memories of an aunt who was kind to him and his dreams of having an ordinary existence, nothing fancy, Vlautin, wise and wised up, has created a convincing tragic hero, a dreamer and a survivor. Charley says far more than Holden Caulfield ever did.
This is a rare book because of its raw truth, its candour. It is a telling odyssey that stabs you in the heart and makes you consider every casual crime of neglect and cruelty ever committed against a child or an animal
There are no gags, no easy laughs. Vlautin evokes an America that is real and everyday; he uses language the way it was meant to be handled, with respect and deliberation, no tricks. Charley is a wonderful narrator, oddly detached, as if caught in a constant state of shock. He lives in his head and his hopes. His father comes and goes, bringing women back to wherever he and Charley happen to be staying. Dad is casual, thoughtless and barely aware of what being a parent means. The boy has been exposed to sex at its most raw. He has looked on as his father has done all kinds of things with willing women. If Charley ever had a mother, it was all so long ago he has long forgotten.
Aside from his memories of his aunt, the boy inhabits a bleak present. His immediate concerns are about food. He is always hungry and says so throughout the book. Vlautin’s supreme achievement is Charley – likable, hurt, wary, polite, abused and unlucky Charley – and that is saying something, as the other characters, major and minor, are also brilliantly drawn, while the story itself – muted, deadpan, relentless – well, it just has to be read.
Most days the boy goes running, hoping that should he ever get the chance to go back to school, he will be fit and ready to try out for football. He does his push-ups, he watches everything, the people in the stores and the streets. He goes to the movies, checks out the TV and waits. He keeps vigil for a father who rarely bothers to come home. Money is scarce, so is food. Calm, stoic Charley shoplifts all the time because he needs to eat.
The miracle of this narrative, as anyone who read Vlautin’s debut, The Motel Life, will be aware, is that Vlautin knows how living is both basic and complicated. Bad things happen. It is possible to wake up hungover and queasy, as does Frank in The Motel Life, to find your brother sick with guilt about having run over and killed a boy, standing over your bed and looking for help. In Lean on Pete, Charley is lonely and hurt, but he is not complaining, just looking for a way to improve his situation. His long runs around Portland alert him to the local racetrack, a run-down joint full of desperate men and damaged racehorses. There he first sees Del, who is struggling to change a flat tyre on a horsebox: “He was swearing at it. Each time he tried to get a lug nut off he’d start cussing. He had a low rough voice . . .”
Old Del belongs to the lowest rung of racehorse owners, intent on the big break that is never going to happen. He fires their legs and uses every dirty trick there is. For Charley, helping Del means a job and, in one of the horses, Lean on Pete, a five-year-old quarter horse resigned to enduring hell on earth, Charley finds more than a friend, he finds a creature in need of his love. The boy’s affection for the horse is powerfully described. It’s not Disney. Instead the passages in which the boy pets the horse and shares his thoughts with him bring the book to an even higher level. Del is not a cartoon bad guy; Vlautin is far too sophisticated for that. Del is a real-life villain, a person who does not deserve to be described as human.
Working for him is a humiliating battle of wits, but Charley wants the job, particularly after his father is viciously beaten and ends up in hospital, where he dies. Lean on Pete breaks down and Del decides to sell him for slaughter. Charley, who, when asked if he knows how to drive, replies “sort of”, sets off in Del’s truck with Pete in the trailer. Events multiply. Charley encounters a few kind people, many rotten ones. He is betrayed, abused and robbed. Most of all he fails to help Pete and is tormented by guilt. As one boy’s journey, Lean on Pete is as real as blood; as a novel it is remarkable. Willy Vlautin, romantic and realist, has written something special that will make you shudder, weep, rage and wonder at how such things happen and do, and how some individuals, such as Charley, can suffer them, absorb the grief, and somehow survive. How good is contemporary US fiction? This good; catch-your-breath good.
Eileen Battersby is Literary Correspondent of The Irish Times