Thursday 12 December 2019

postcards from THE EDGE OF a rundown AMERICA


A man picks up a drink-sodden woman and winds up back at her place. But just as they're about to do the deed, the man is startled to see her young son in the corner of the room observing their nocturnal joust.

Ashamed and with a fatal dampener put on his lustful fumblings, he thinks back to when he himself was a child and "the guy who lived in the Winnebago would always make my mom cry".

This is the somewhat tawdry scenario played out in 'The Boyfriends' from Richmond Fontaine's 2009 album We Used To Think The Freeway Sounded Like A River. Not your typical boy-meets-girl love song, then.

But this is what you get with Willy Vlautin: the rude intrusion of real life, with its mixed-up people, a gallery of lost souls desperately trying to stop from falling between the cracks and grab on to fleeting moments of happiness amidst the creeping awareness of defeat and disappointment.

And wait till you hear the sad songs. . .

Vlautin -- who grew up in Reno, Nevada, but now lives in the town of Scappoose, Oregon -- and his band Richmond Fontaine have been on a tyre-shredding tour of Europe since the start of February and pitched up in Ireland this week, where he will play two acoustic shows -- an early and a late one -- upstairs in Whelan's, Dublin, tonight, accompanied by guitarist Dan Eccles.

Vlautin has also been sneaking in some promotional readings of his new novel, Lean On Pete, while he's been on the road, including one in Belfast's No Alibi bookshop yesterday.

The 41-year-old's books are of a piece with his songwriting -- which span nine studio albums -- sketching sparse, intimate narratives of aimless drifters and desperados who are drawn with boundless empathy but never lapse into sentimentality.

Vlautin's debut novel, The Motel Life, told the story of Frank and Jerry Lee Flannigan, two brothers who make a catastrophic decision to flee their home town after Jerry accidentally runs over someone in his car. The Mexican film director Guillermo Arriaga (Babel, 21 Grams) was so impressed, he bought the rights to the book and asked Vlautin to write the screenplay.

The follow-up, Northline, which shares a title with an old Richmond Fontaine song (from the album Winnemucca), continued in the same vein, focusing on a 22-year-old girl named Allison Johnson who finds herself pregnant by her abusive boyfriend, which prompts her to up sticks from Las Vegas to Reno.

In a conceit similar to the Ken Loach film Looking For Eric, Allison's favourite actor Paul Newman appears to her in her traumatic moments to offer her advice on how to extricate herself from her sticky situation -- advice based on his most iconic movie roles.

"I've always been really nervous around people who are what everyone thinks of as happy and successful," Vlautin told one interviewer. "As a kid, I just started hanging around people who were more like the people in Northline, people who have fallen through the net.

"I felt way more comfortable and my nerves weren't as bad when I was with people who had a little kink to them. I've never had any interest in writing about any other sorts of people because my heart is more with those kind of characters."

Allison Johnson is another character who wandered in and out of a Richmond Fontaine song (simply titled 'Allison Johnson', from their album Post To Wire), and has been made to live and breathe on the page.

Indeed, she even inspired a whole instrumental soundtrack album that Vlautin recorded with his regular pedal steel player Paul 'The Blizzard' Brainard, which was given away with the book. US film director Courtney Hunt, who made the Oscar-nominated Frozen River, is set to adapt Northline for the big screen.

Now, Vlautin's third and latest novel has seen him mentioned in the same company as John Steinbeck and Charles Bukowski. It tells the story of a 15-year-old boy, Charley Thompson, who is neglected by his wayward father and left to fend for himself, eventually eking out a living on a rundown race track in Portland, Oregon, where he befriends a failed racehorse named Lean On Pete.

The London Independent described it as "an archetypal American novel -- Huck Finn for the crystal-meth generation".

Vlautin's songs are themselves miniature portraits that have always had writerly qualities, portraying an America that is less The Promised Land than the Third World.

Richmond Fontaine's 2005 album The Fitzgerald featured minimal musical backing and was essentially a bunch of spoken-word short stories set in and around an Irish-themed casino in Reno.

And in 2008, Vlautin abandoned the six-string altogether to record a spoken word album on CD, A Jockey's Christmas, which tells the tale of a fat, washed-up, alcoholic jockey. A cross between Dick Francis and Ingmar Bergman, it's the perfect Yuletide gift.

"Writing stories is what I do to keep my head straight," says Vlautin, who one suspects is processing all sorts of complex emotions in his work.

As he sings on one of his most fatalistic songs, the gut-wrenching 'Lost In This World': "Maybe it's my skin, it's too thin/ Maybe it's my heart that always caves in."

Richmond Fontaine's Willy Vlautin and Dan Eccles play upstairs at Whelan's, Dublin, tonight at 8pm and again at 10pm. Lean On Pete is published by Faber & Faber.

Irish Independent

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