Willy Vlautin is the frontman of local alt-country band Richmond Fontaine, which is why his new novel, Northline, is probably the only book you'll read this year to come with its own soundtrack. The slow-strummed ballads that accompany Northline provide a lush companion to Vlautin's starkly descriptive prose, and wisely, they're wordless, so you can listen and read at the same time. It's a transportive experience, one that locates the reader squarely in the glamourless workaday reality of the Nevada gambling towns in which the novel is set.
Northline's protagonist is the young Allison Johnson, known to the reader only as "the girl" for the first few chapters. We're initially introduced to Allison's boyfriend, Jimmy Body, hard drinking and a mean drunk, and Allison is merely the girl he has sex with in a Vegas casino bathroom, a lightweight who passes out while he's fucking her from behind:
"She tried to hold on, to keep standing, but she was beginning to black out. He wouldn't stop. She tried to focus on the stainless steel pipe that was connected to the toilet, tried to read the words stamped into it. When she fell, her head hit the metal pipe and cut a half-inch line above her left eye, just above the eyelid. Blood ran down her face as she lay naked on the floor."
Later in the scene, she wets herself; and Jimmy, angry and ashamed, kicks her hard in the leg. It's about as low as a girl can go, both victim and culpable in her own victimization—and the rest of the book is the slow, one-step-at-a-time chronicle of Allison's attempt to break away from Jimmy and set her life right. She moves from Vegas to Reno, finds work, and, alone in her apartment, talks herself down from anxiety attacks by having imaginary conversations with Paul Newman.
Vlautin's writing style is perfectly suited to his material: Things happen the way they happen, slowly but inexorably, with the significance of any moment rarely evident until after the fact, or maybe never evident at all. There are no epiphanies here; new lives are built one unassuming sentence at a time, and Allison quietly emerges from that puddle of urine in a Vegas bathroom to become one of the most affecting, genuinely human protagonists I've encountered.