As well as writing novels, Willy Vlautin is a rock singer in a band called Richmond Fontaine – a five-piece based in Portland, Oregon, with many albums to their name and a cult following among fans of grizzled Americana.
Their songs unfold in a Pacific Northwest landscape of small towns peopled by drifters and drinkers: failed romantics holding out for a final stab at redemption, their lives recounted by Vlautin in a weary drawl that sounds like a voice emerging from the darkness at the far end of the bar. “A Letter to the Patron Saint of Nurses” is typical, a deftly drawn portrait of a tired suburban marriage between a nurse and the narrator. The song’s final line has a Raymond Carver-esque understated power when Vlautin’s narrator recalls a happier time together: “See, it can be like that too.”
The Free is dedicated to the patron saint of nurses, St Camillus de Lellis, and one of its central characters is a saintly nurse, Pauline Hawkins, who works at a hospital in an unnamed town in Washington state. Among her patients is Leroy Kervin, an Iraq war veteran with brain damage who has tried to kill himself. The third central character is Freddie McCall, night man at the care home where Leroy attempted to take his life.
Each of the trio is trapped by circumstances. Pauline is locked into a life of helping others, especially her mentally ill father. Divorcee Freddie works in the care home by night and a paint shop by day, his finances ruined by alimony and medical bills. Meanwhile Leroy lies motionless and semi-conscious in hospital, his injured mind turning the sci-fi novels that his mother is reading to him by his bedside into a fevered fantasy of being on the run in a dystopian America with his girlfriend Jeanette, hunted by a rightwing extermination squad called “The Free”.
Vlautin’s writing is spare and straightforward, in the “dirty realist” tradition of Carver. A grim winter climate is neatly evoked – lips blue with cold, bulky cheap clothes – while impoverished lives are summed up by the bad food and drink that people consume in search of fleeting gratification or energy bursts: doughnuts, frozen steak dinners, pints of ice cream, large bottles of sugary sodas. Individuals are either overweight or undernourished; houses are “desolate and tired”, the bricks-and-mortar equivalent of poor Freddie, constantly falling asleep from the pressure of holding down two jobs.
The Free is Vlautin’s fourth novel. Its predecessors were well received; one of them, The Motel Life, has recently been turned into a film. This new work confirms him as an accomplished novelist, not just a rocker dabbling in the form. But its ambitious scope, balancing realism, fantasy and state-of-the-nation social comment, proves too much for the story to bear.
Particularly problematic are Leroy’s violent, pulpy dream sequences, on the run with Jeanette, which read like a dull pastiche of Cormac McCarthy. Also, in the opening pages of the book, Leroy’s suicide attempt during a moment of lucidity from his brain injury is so enigmatic a response to recovery that Jeanette, in his dream life, can’t help vocalising the reader’s puzzlement: “I don’t understand why you’d want to die then. It doesn’t make sense.”
The fascist America of Leroy’s imagination is a nightmarish amplification of the real-life America grinding Pauline and Freddie down, a country mired in interminable foreign wars, economic crisis and deep inequality. A longing for an old heroic America runs through the book, from the lament for the nation’s automotive industry that Freddie shares with a tow-truck driver to the framed crochet picture reading “The Ranch Life Is the Good Life” that Pauline spots in an abandoned farmhouse squatted by junkies.
Vlautin writes about this fallen world with sympathy and a sharp eye for detail. The Free has a punchy political subtext, the free market depicted as peddling a cruel illusion of freedom, symbolised by the choice of unhealthy foodstuffs with which the characters are slowly killing themselves. But the novel lacks the courage of its convictions. “Remember to be kind” is its moral, an inadequately folksy and twee response to the harsh society it depicts. As the story buckles, Vlautin flees, like the dreaming Leroy, into unconvincing wish fulfilment.