WILLY VLAUTIN'S new book is called The Free, as in "land of," and it explores familiar territory for the Oregon author, who has made a career of sensitively documenting lives lived in quiet desperation. (A literary career, and a musical one; he covers similar thematic ground in his band Richmond Fontaine.)
The Free—the irony of the title is meant to sting a little—follows the lives of three people living in a Washington town: Leroy, an Iraq War veteran whose suicide attempt is the novel's pivotal event; Freddie, a night-shift worker at the group home where Leroy was staying when he tried to kill himself; and Pauline, a nurse at the hospital where Leroy ends up.
As ever, Vlautin focuses on characters who would be on the periphery of any other novel: nurses, night watchmen, Safeway cashiers, and lost, miserable teens. He writes about poor people and disappointed people, good people in bad situations, and hardworking people whose relentless labor never seems to pay off in a better life.
In Vlautin's 2008 novel Northline—still my favorite of his books—the young protagonist takes refuge from her shitty life and abusive relationship in fantasies that Paul Newman is counseling her through tough times. A similar device pops up in The Free: Leroy is comatose for most of the book, and a whole narrative unfolds in his dreams, a dystopian sci-fi adventure about a couple pursued by nefarious government forces. While the story neatly mirrors certain aspects of Leroy's biography, it's nonetheless the least effective part of the book. Vlautin is at his best when he's at his most literal, describing simple, unfussy characters in simple, unfussy prose, and he really shines when he's focusing on Freddie and Pauline.
Freddie works two jobs in a failing effort to pay the mortgage on his house; Pauline struggles to help vulnerable patients at the hospital, and cares for her mentally ill father in her off hours. These characters are remarkable for their lack of remarkableness: Vlautin celebrates the simple act of putting one foot in front of the other, of continuing to get out of bed in the morning, of finding happiness and home in whatever small, normal measures one can. It's not a flashy novel, and these aren't flashy people, but in Vlautin's hands their very ordinariness is transmuted into something powerful, indelible, and bittersweet.