The Free – Willy Vlautin, book review

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I have this morning finished reading Willy Vlautin’s latest and fourth novel The Free, and it has been as wonderfully rewarding an experience as it always is: in the simple yet potent quality of the writing, and in the recounting of ordinary people’s compelling humanity.

Having read this immediately after Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, the chasm in that competing evocation of who we are is quite a stark paradoxical reality to absorb. There is no comparison that makes any sense in drawing further – I mention simply to illustrate the poles of a reading experience that impacts long after that reading.

The Free is ostensibly the story of soldier Leroy Kervan on his return home, injured, from the war in Iraq. I had wondered how Vlautin would deal with such a precise focus and context compared with his preceding three books – this fourth seeming to include a ‘world’ event so much broader than his previous Northwest American milieu peopled with lives wracked by everyday ills rather than war-scarred situations and events.

Without spoiling the book for those who haven’t read, I should have guessed Vlautin would still tell Leroy’s story through more ordinary means – in the main – and in this case it is through the focus on the everyday yet oppressed lives of Freddie and Pauline, respectively Leroy’s care-home worker and nurse. There are other attendant characters who flesh out both their suffering but also the actions of human care and kindness they consistently display. All are weary and worn from a world that should make life so much better for everyone, but doesn’t. In many cases every reader can and will identify with some aspect of these familiar people and their lives: I was engaged and in one particular scene deeply affected by the portrayal of the demanding relationship between Pauline and her father.

The other means by which Leroy’s story is told is through the ruse of an intercalary dream sequence in which he and girlfriend Jeanette are pursued by a sinister death-squad the Free – and Vlautin has used such a ruse before, though a far less brutal one, where Paul Newman appears within the narrative thrust of his novel Northline. Whilst this dreamworld is full of action and an insidious futuristic theme, it was always the day-to-day experiences of Freddie and Pauline I wanted to hear about.

In one further tenuous link with The Road I will comment on the notion of there being a theme of redemption in both books. I don’t believe this exists in either. I comment because I recently had a discussion with a friend about this notion when applied to The Road, and we both agreed that it was fanciful and counter to the book’s dominant dark narrative as well as overwhelming bleak tone. Whilst I do believe Vlautin has rightly explored the redemptive impact of human kindness in his work, I think in The Free there is too much that doesn’t get resolved to look for unrealistic prevalent hope in the goodness that does occur – and I say ‘occur’ because I cannot say ‘prevails’. And that for me is its totally believable reality, making the occasional glimpses of whatever hope one thinks is there all the more potent.

[I make no apology for posting again my photo of me with Will Vlautin after he agreed to an interview about his book Lean on Pete, an extract from this and writing idea included in my book Writing Workshops. I only wish I could post his interview in which he was so generous with his time and illuminating in his comments: it requires a site license to access as part of the Cambridge Elevate complete resource package]


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