FANS OF Willy Vlautin's work, both his recorded output with the band Richmond Fontaine and his novels, will find much that's familiar in his third book, Lean on Pete. Vlautin's writing has always gravitated toward time and youth misspent; toward the possibility, however faint, of reclaiming a life with meaning from the tawdriness that remains when the glamour of drinking and gambling and drugs has faded. But while Pete's protagonist slips through the cracks of polite society, he's far less complicit in his own situation than the protagonists of Vlautin's previous novels. Pete could almost be categorized as a young adult novel: It's told from the perspective of 15-year-old Charley, a kid who has seen more than anyone his age should have, and is still struggling to build a worthwhile life of his own.
Charley and his dad have recently moved to Portland, where Charley takes an under-the-table job at Portland Meadows to earn some extra cash—his father, a heavy-drinking trucker, can't be counted on to keep the refrigerator stocked. The world that Charley encounters at the racetrack is almost unbelievably seedy—horses are injected with speed-enhancing substances before races, low-paid jockeys risk injury and death every day, and fights regularly break out over disputed race results. When his father is killed in a fight, Charley, afraid to return home, starts living at the racetrack—and one day, he steals a racehorse named Lean on Pete and sets out to find his aunt, the only family member he has left.
Vlautin plays a neat trick here, borrowing the boy-and-his-pet formula so common to children's books (see: The Black Stallion, Where the Red Fern Grows, The Yearling, etc.) and giving that relationship a bracing introduction to our current economic and social realities. (In that regard, Vlautin's novel shares much with fellow Northwest author Jon Raymond's short story "Train Choir," on which the film Wendy and Lucy was based.)
Pete lacks the simple emotional power of Northline, Vlautin's best work to date, which describes a young woman slowly rebuilding her life after she leaves her abusive boyfriend. By contrast, a lot happens in Pete—and the catalog of miseries suffered by the goodhearted Charley can be tough to take. Vlautin's invariably empathetic prose, though, makes Pete a worthwhile window into the ways our society—and our city—can fail its citizens.