April 19, 2012 by markstani
In his first two novels, ‘Northline’ and ‘This Motel Life’, Willy Vlautin conjured the fizzy neon hopelessness of America’s beat-up, broke-down casino towns, quietly crafting a reputation as one of the modern masters of hard yet somehow heartwarming US realism.For his third novel, Lean On Pete (pub. Faber), which has been shortlisted for this year’s lucrative IMPAC Award, Vlautin stretches his boundaries as far as the Pacific north-west, where his central character, fifteen-year-old Charley Thompson, begins an odyssey which will nudge him across the vast and lonely plains of the mid-West.
Pretty much left to his own devices by his itinerant father, Charley seeks work at a local racetrack, where knackered, halfway-to-glue horses trudge circuits to order for bent trainers and bookies.Charley establishes a bond with one horse, the eponymous ‘Lean On Pete’, to the extent that when Pete’s racing days are over and there is only one place he seems to be heading, Charley has other ideas.
The jockey brought Pete back and Del put a lead rope on him and we led him off the track and to the parking lot. Pete was breathing heavy and he was dark with sweat. The jockey jumped down, took off his saddle, and Del and I walked Pete towards the barn.
‘Pete’s really fast,’ I said excitedly.
‘If he didn’t beat that piece of shit I would have slit his throat,’ Del said. ‘He ain’t fast. The other horse is just a pig. We’ll hose him down, then we’ll get the hell out of here before the spics get drunk and want their money back.’
Vlautin exposes the grimy underbelly of horse racing in the US, an issue made topical this month by this damning report in the New York Times. But worthy though it is, that is not this novel’s primary aim. With his deceptively simple, deadpan prose, Vlautin has created a deeply touching and humane novel from a subject long since stripped of any romance.
You can’t help but tear through the pages, willing Charley and Pete to go the extra furlong and find unlikely redemption. Vlautin is better known as the frontman for the band Richmond Fontaine, whose songs, such as ‘We Used To Think The Freeway Sounded Like A River’ and ‘$87 And A Guilty Conscience That Gets Worse The Longer I Go’, don’t hint at the kind of mind that lays on happy endings. But that again is hardly the point. Like those interminable loops round the racetrack, with this fine book it’s the journey that counts.