Although he's rightly garnered serious plaudits for his two excellent novels, The Motel Life and Northline, those of us who first became aware of the storytelling skills of Willy Vlautin via his work with the outstanding Richmond Fontaine will probably always regard him primarily as a songwriter. His ability to sketch a vivid, human and thoroughly believable story in three minutes or less is the mark of a serious talent. For his latest novel fans of the band's work won't be surprised at the subject matter.
Over the course of Fontaine's career there have been regular references to horse racing in Willy's songs. With Lean on Pete Vlautin's interest in horsey matters is given an extended run with a story about Charley Thompson, a 15-year-old boy whose life has been pretty unstable as he has moved around the Pacific Northwest with his father Ray until they wind up in Portland and he gains some measure of stability when he finds summer work helping out a dodgy racehorse trainer. He forms a bond with the horse which gives the book its title. Lean on Pete is less bleak than Willy's first two books.
All Charley really wants is a clear structure to his life, one which Ray hasn't been able to offer, and he sets out to find an aunt he hasn't seen for five years in the hope that she might be able to help.
As ever, Vlautin's prose is sparse and immaculately delivered, drawing the reader into the life and mind of the young protagonist with deceptive simplicity. Wouldn't it be a nice to celebrate the publication of Lean on Pete with a Richmond Fontaine gig in a pub called the Horse and Jockey?