Willy Vlautin – Northline

Originally posted September, 2011



I’ve just finished reading my signed copy of the short novel Northline by American author and front-man of band Richmond Fontaine, Willy Vlautin. It is a simple and yet powerful story of the damaged and self-damaging life of Allison Johnson, and it seems to me that as a male, Vlautin has empathised with and realised effectively in his narrative the female voice and perspective. There is simplicity in the telling of this everyday girl’s life that is typically American – though it isn’t Carveresque, for example, in that it isn’t pared back to that ordinariness – which is realised through the naturalistic dialogue and strong sense of place, essentially Las Vegas and Reno, as well as bars, beer parties and shopping malls.

The story is full of painful and violent episodes but the overriding theme is one of hope and endeavour, these latter positive attributes found in the kindnesses and support from various disparate people Allison meets on her escape to a better life.

There isn’t a distinctive literary style other than direct and simple narrative. There is the literary ruse, however, of Allison talking with her film hero and secret lover Paul Newman, someone who supports her most in times of need. At these times, the references to various characters and scenes from what appears to be most of his films sounds a little too contrived [apart from the fact he speaks to her!], but it does provide a narrative thread.

Most effective are the juxtapositions of Allison’s painful falls and optimistic retrievals. A particularly dramatic one is where Allison is raped – a situation she has in some ways fatalistically placed herself [though there is no authorial justification for the rape, and its brutal description speaks for itself] – and this is set two chapters later against Allison going for a telesales job and meeting Penny who is as ordinary and real as an average person can be and yet her plain speaking, encouragements and simple kindnesses provide, in the circumstances, a powerful alternative experience in a difficult life.

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