Kindness of Strangers
Willy Vlautin’s third novel is a hopeful tale
by Molly Templeton
Willy Vlautin’s three novels are spun out of the stories that hover around our peripheral vision. His downtrodden narratives follow the down and out, the luckless, the broke, the men and women whose bad decisions and worse luck have left them pushed to the side, stumbling through lives in which nothing can be taken for granted.
Lean on Pete, Vlautin’s third novel, is told in the voice of 15-year-old Charley Thompson, who lives in Portland with his unreliable dad. Charley describes his days in such a straightforward, uncomplaining voice that it takes time to see how the cracks in his world join up and create gaping canyons of loneliness and neglect. Nothing in Charley’s life will hold still — not his home, not his dad, not his future and definitely not Charley himself; he runs all over the city to wear himself out. On one of those runs, Charley makes his way to Portland Meadows, where he meets a drunken old fellow, Del Montgomery, who owns a tired, losing horse named Lean on Pete.
Lean on Pete is in part a boy and his horse story, even though the horse isn’t Charley’s. He talks to Pete, worries about Pete, takes care of Pete as best he can; Pete is Charley’s stability, or as close to it as he’s likely to get. When even that relationship is threatened, Charley makes a decision, the consequences of which you can see a mile down the dusty road he sets out on. But that doesn’t lessen the power of Vlautin’s story, in which misfits, outcasts and stragglers provide almost all the kindness Charley Thompson sees.
There’s no cruelty, no superiority, no judgment in Vlautin’s pared-down prose; there’s honesty, compassion and understanding, and a clear, sharp voice that illustrates the places — the run-down motels, beaten-up trailers and bone-dry Eastern Oregon roads — as clearly as the people who move tiredly through them. Charley is a narrative cousin to Michelle Williams’ character in Wendy and Lucy, a young person cut loose from his mooring, drifting through a world it’s difficult to rejoin. Vlautin’s prose glows with a tiny kernel of hope not just for Charley but for the kind strangers he meets on his journey; for the lonely holdouts at the racetrack, human and equine; for the waitresses with tired feet and the odd-job laborers with crazy ideas. You never think everything’s going to turn out all right in a Vlautin tale, but enough is going to be OK. Barely. Eventually.
Willy Vlautin reads at 7 pm Tuesday, April 13, at the UO Bookstore.