Wednesday 21 November 2018

Time to leave a lost and lonely life behind in Las Vegas

Vlautin shows echoes of Carver in his new novel, writes Desmond Traynor

Desmond Traynor


Willy Vlautin

Faber & Faber, Stg €9.99


Allison Johnson has problems. At 22, she is so lacking in social confidence that she regularly drinks until she passes out when she's out around people with her abusive boyfriend, Jimmy Bodie, by whom she's now pregnant (although, fortunately for her, he doesn't know). Stuck in a series of dead-end waitressing jobs, she indulges in episodes of self-harm, and is depressed to the point of being borderline suicidal.

She hasn't even graduated from high school, one of the many rebukes she throws at herself in self-lacerating page-long diary entries she scribbles but then burns -- although it appears this is not because she is, as her calls herself, "a moron", but again due to social maladroitness and feeling out of place with her peers. She was once raped by a couple of Mexican fellow-workers. Hell, she isn't even dignified with a name until page 45 of Willy Vlautin's second novel, the follow-up to 2006's highly-acclaimed The Motel Life, but is referred to merely as "the girl".

So, "low self-esteem" and "poor self-image", as the cliche-mongering shrinks and therapists would term it, are her prevailing emotions. (She would never darken a doctor's door, though, afraid that they would simply lock her up.) But all is not lost, since she at least has the gumption to hop on a bus and leave Las Vegas in an attempt to start a new life in the arbitrarily chosen Reno. Which, leaving a terse note for her mother and younger sister, warning them not to tell Jimmy anything, is what she does. If Jimmy found out about the pregnancy, he'd want her to keep the kid, and then she'd be truly scuppered, tied to him forever. In Reno she waitresses, and has the baby adopted through an agency, the source of much of her later regret.

Allison's odyssey is punctuated and defined by the chance encounters she has on the way; some people as ready to render random acts of kindness as others are a sinister source of threat and fear. Indeed, the role of luck, both good and bad, would seem to be one of Vlautin's central concerns in this episodically structured novel, recalling Irish poet Paul Durcan's fine line from one of his finest works, The Death by Heroin of Sid Vicious: "There -- but for the clutch of luck -- go we all," which neatly substitutes a more contemporary, secular version of "the grace of God". It is not for nothing that Vlautin always signs his books "Good luck always".

Allison also receives periodic, if imaginary, visitations from her hero, Paul Newman, in which he tries to keep her on the right track by offering nuggets of friendly encouragement and advice, a la a kindly surrogate for her own long-absent father. It is he who tells her, commenting on Jimmy's pie-in-the-sky plan to relocate northwards which gives the novel its title: "Remember, kid, there ain't no place where you can escape to. There's no place where there aren't weirdos and death and violence and change and new people. You head up to Wyoming or Montana and you'll run into the same things as you do in Vegas or New Orleans. You'll run into yourself."

Frank Kermode wrote of one of Vlautin's avowed influences, Raymond Carver, " ... (his) fiction is so spare in manner that it takes time before one realises how completely a whole culture and a whole moral condition is represented by even the most seemingly slight sketch ... ", and this observation is exemplified here by Jimmy's involvement with right-wing, anti-immigration skinhead group, the World Church of the Creator, who blame Mexicans for all their troubles, a white trash milieu rarely explored in American fiction. As with The Motel Life, Vlautin's staked-out territory remains the lost, the lonely, the rootlessly marginalised, those blue-collar folks whom college-educated, middle-class Americans typically dismiss as "losers".

Vlautin has another artistic outlet as singer and chief songwriter with Portland band Richmond Fontaine, and this is the first novel to my knowledge to come with an accompanying instrumental soundtrack. Moreover, Vlautin's socio-political concern with economic emigration was already being voiced on the band's last album, Thirteen Cities, in songs such as The Border, I Fell Into Painting Houses in Phoenix, Arizona and The Disappearance of Ray Norton. Indeed, the genesis of much that is contained here was originally musical, Northline being a song on 2002's Winnemucca album, while a cut entitled Allison Johnson appeared on 2003's Post to Wire.

The denouement may seem as though Vlautin didn't quite know how to finish up, but then the inconclusive ending is also a hallmark of Carver. The foreboding face-off with Jimmy that is threatened throughout never materialises, but it still might. Even if Allison is left kissing her new boyfriend, Dan Mahony, "in weakness", at least he's a better bet than Jimmy Bodie ever was. She's even started studying for her high- school diploma.

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