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Lean On Pete
By Willy Vlautin
(Faber & Faber, £12.99stg original paperback)
Protagonists have a hard time in Willy Vlautin’s novels. Whether it’s the Flanagan brothers on the run in his 2006 debut The Motel Life, the vulnerable and abused Allison Johnson striking out in an attempt to make a new life for herself in 2008’s Northline, or now 15 year old Charley Thompson in his latest, Lean On Pete, the world wasn’t exactly made for these marginalised characters.
Charley has just moved from Spokane, Washington to Portland, Oregon, with his father Ray, a forklift truck driver, the implication being that they had to get out of town fast, possibly because of a jealous husband. Ray has only the vaguest concept of parental responsibility, and frequently goes AWOL for days on end in the company of another new girlfriend, leaving Charley short of money and food, which forces him to resort to shoplifting. Charley, as he tells anyone kind enough to ask, is always hungry.
Despite this dysfunctional situation, there is understated affection between father and son. Charley remembers Ray telling him about his absent mother Nancy, who abandoned him when he was a year old: ‘ “She ain’t called or sent a card but I know deep down she loves you. She really does. She’s just fucked-up in the head and likes to party too much. I know it’s hard to hear, but it’s a good thing she’s gone. I ain’t shit but I like being here with you.” ’
It’s summer, and with school out Charley assuages the boredom by watching TV, marathon movie theatre sessions, and jogging around his new neighbourhood, with the intention of keeping himself fit enough to make the football team at his new school, Jefferson High, when it reopens. At his last school, he was good at football. ‘At least in Spokane I had friends,’ he muses. It is on one of these jaunts that Charley first encounters the disreputable Del, a shifty horse trainer who offers him casual work. In need of the money and glad of a means of putting in the time, Charley agrees. So he discovers the down-at-heel racetrack Portland Meadows, and meets five year old quarter horse Lean On Pete, who becomes his confidant and only friend. It is by means of Charley’s heart-to-hearts with Pete that we learn about much of his past life. But Del proves an erratic paymaster, and also has no compunction about injecting his horses, including Pete, with speed, since ‘everybody cheats’. When Pete is suspected of being diseased, Del is planning on cutting his losses by selling him for dog food and glue.
Further disaster strikes when another jealous husband, the beefy Samoan, puts Ray through the front window of their house, and he winds up in hospital. When he dies, Charley realises, ‘I was in deep trouble, I knew that. My dad was lying somewhere dead, and I was all alone.’
What follows is a road odyssey, as Charley takes off with Pete in the hope of saving the horse, and himself. His half-formed destination is his father’s sister, Aunt Margy, last heard of four years ago when she was living in Rock Springs, Wyoming, current whereabouts uncertain. Ray did not leave forwarding addresses. Needless to say, Charley comes into contact with a fair cross section of the good, the bad and the ugly during his journey, even winding up in a settlement home at one point, from which he thankfully escapes. Much of this trip is a more fully fleshed out version of events that have their genesis in the Richmond Fontaine song ‘Laramie, Wyoming’, from the band’s 2005 album, The Fitzgerald. It is becoming almost redundant to say that Vlautin is more well-known as the singer/songwriter with that alt. country band, as his reputation as a novelist is now rivalling that achieved in his initial creative outlet. But he brings the eye for detail and knack for the telling phrase already displayed in his song lyrics to his prose fiction, where one seemingly innocuous line can reveal so much. For example, Charley says of the nurse who informs him of his father’s death: ‘She tried to hug me but I don’t like to be hugged.’
I have written in these pages previously of how Vlautin is mining the terse, laconic, Hemingwayesque tradition in American letters, a seam whose subsequent practitioners included Raymond Carver, Denis Johnson and Nelson Algren, any or all of whom may have influenced Vlautin. What is noteworthy is that he is getting better as he goes on, and Lean On Pete is his best yet. Less cynically articulate despite having fewer privileges than The Catcher In The Rye’s Holden Caulfield, although equally distrustful of authority, Charley Thompson could well be the more sympathetic adolescent boy hero we need for these times. In many ways, he is a latter-day update of the American romantic survivor spirit, personified in Huck Finn. If his living on his wits in the face of adversity is far less amusing than that great American original’s, it is much more heart-rending.
First published in The Sunday Independent