Sunday 28 December 2014

A quality tale of characters' decency

Desmond Traynor

Published 10/03/2014 | 02:30

The Free

Willy Vlautin

Faber, €15.99

IRAQ veteran Leroy Kervin, the silent, recumbent still centre around which turns all else in Willy Vlautin's latest novel, his fourth, awakes in his 'second-rate group home for disabled men' to a brief moment of long-lost clarity.

Seven years previously, when he was 24, 'a roadside bomb had destroyed the vehicle he was in', and 'he'd woken up in a hospital in Germany with major brain trauma and two broken arms. He couldn't speak and he couldn't walk.' In a memorable phrase, 'Rehabilitation had turned into caregiving', but now 'It was like his mind had suddenly walked out of a never-ending snowstorm.'

The first chapter continues: 'He knew that most likely he would close his eyes and sleep would come and the clarity would disappear and the frustration, the bleak thoughts, and the fog would return. But at that moment, on that night, he had a window and he decided to escape through it. He decided he would kill himself.' After his failed attempt to end his miserable existence, Leroy winds up back in a local hospital, on the flat of his back, where he remains for the rest of the novel.

The excessive quotation in the above introduction is by virtue of the fact that there is really no more economical way to precis Vlautin's already pared-down prose. Besides, why say something differently when it's already been so well expressed? This beautifully, leisurely paced work subsequently unfolds around three major narrative strands, interwoven like a fugue.

There's the story of Freddie McCall, the night janitor at the group home, who finds Leroy in a bloodied mess after his botched suicide attempt. Recently divorced, and struggling to pay his bills and child support, mostly due to the massive debt incurred by his younger daughter Virginia's illness and treatment, which was not covered by his medical insurance, he works two jobs, the other being at Logan's Paint Store.

Despite not sleeping or eating well, Freddie still finds time to visit Leroy and sit by his bed, on his way to the night shift. 'He'd always like Leroy. For a man who couldn't speak, whose brain had been caved in by war, he had personality.' They used to look at the stars together.

Then there's Pauline, Leroy's nurse, who not only holds down a demanding job, but looks after her mentally ill father and pays his bills, notwithstanding his extreme mood swings and volatile behaviour towards her when she was growing up. Her mother had bailed out long ago, when Pauline was five. Determinedly independent or, to put it another way, terrified of commitment, she is a caring person, whose attempted rescue of Jo, a 15-year-old runaway who becomes her patient, goes above and beyond the call of duty. As a character, she's even already been immortalised in song as Pauline Hawkins, a track on the new Drive-By Truckers album English Oceans.

Finally, there's the interpolated near-future dystopian story, made up of the hallucinations percolating around sci-fi fan Leroy's brain, as he lies prostrate, recovering from surgery. In this, he and his former real-life girlfriend, Jeanette, are fleeing ever further northwards, pursued by The Free, a right-wing militia on an ethnic cleansing mission to eradicate Green Loaders, who are identifiable by a mysterious malady called The Mark. Back in the land of The Free, although mute and incapacitated, Leroy functions remarkably well as an imaginative and engaging hero.

Of course, protagonists have always had a hard time in Willy Vlautin's novels. Whether it was the Flanagan brothers on the run in his 2006 debut The Motel Life, the vulnerable and abused Allison Johnson striking out in an attempt to make a new life for herself in 2008's Northline, or 15-year-old orphan Charley Thompson taking off in Lean On Pete, the hardscrabble lives of America's underclass (or squeezed middles) mean the odds are never in these characters' favour. As a member of the National Guard, a part-time force he joined because the extra money meant something, Leroy never envisaged being posted overseas. What survives, in Pauline, in Freddie, even in Leroy, and in those around them, Freddie's friends Mora and Lowell, Leroy's mother Darla and former girlfriend Jeanette, is decency. In the face of blows life deals them, their essential humanity remains intact – unlike that of some others you might meet along the way, for example lazy 'Bible eater' Pat Logan, Freddie's boss at the paint shop. That title is a double entendre, referring not only to the imaginary army but also, ironically, to these people we are reading about.

Like life, the ending is somewhat unresolved. Without giving away spoilers, I would have liked to know more about what became of Jo/Carol. (Come on, Willy, maybe you can return to her and she can be central to the next opus.) As it is, Vlautin has produced perhaps his finest work to date, which certainly gives the equally excellent Lean On Pete a run for its money. I didn't want it to end, and so once I'd finished had no option but to begin it all over again.

Desmond Traynor

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