This is my review of The Free by Willy Vlautin.
Leroy, a damaged survivor of the Iraq war, uses a rare moment of lucidity to make a failed suicide attempt. As he lies in hospital, his surreal dreams of a dystopian world are intercut with the stories of those involved in caring for him: the moonlighting night warden Freddie, or nurse Pauline who always has time to talk to her patients with empathy.
Willy Vlautin writes about the daily lives of ordinary people with more than their fair share of bad luck, to which they may have added a few mistakes. Despite this, they manage to retain the will to persevere combined with decency and kindness. Some reviewers have commented that the frequent repetition of drinking Rainier beers or buying certain kinds of junk food in the supermarket serves as a kind of mantra, but for me, the banality often becomes oppressive and the book is just saved from tedium by a few dramatic or moving events, and the author’s ability to arouse sympathy, liking and even respect for people one might overlook or undervalue in real life. For a while, I feared the story might end in mawkish sentimentality, but it is in fact darker than Northline, the only other novel by Vlautin that I have read.
Vlautin’s style is simple and direct, focused on often minute description. For instance, not the first description of nurse Pauline’s feet: “She bent over and took off her shoes. She set her feet on top of them and leaned back in her chair”. Or, the description of Freddie packing up his beloved train set to sell for much needed cash, rather than of his grief over having to do this: “Freddie McCall found an empty cardboard box and began wrapping toy trains in newspaper. There were eight in total and he set those on the bottom of the box, and put all twenty boxcars on top of them. In another box he put his remaining track and switches, transformers and various wagons and buildings”…..and so on.
In some ways it is refreshing to encounter an author who clearly writes from the heart with a great natural enjoyment of the process, but does not appear to have set foot in a creative writing class, or to have paid any attention to it if he did. On the other hand, the narrative suitable for a reading age of eight, in vocabulary if not subject matter, often left me gasping for a metaphor or an introspective thought. Yet, the next novel I read will probably seem pretentious, and Vlautin’s portrayal of what lies beneath the surface of the fool's gold glitter of the world’s leading economy (for the time being) will stay in my mind for some time.