Willy Vlautin’s new novel The Free describes a damaged America seen through the eyes of three central characters, Leroy, Pauline and Freddie, all of them wounded in some way.
Leroy Kervin, is a veteran of the conflict in Iraq. The victim of a roadside bomb at the age of twenty-four, we meet him seven years later living in a group home for disabled men in Washington state. Following his brain injury he struggles to walk and has problems with his speech.
The night-shift caretaker at the home is Freddie McCall, who is a man nearing the end of his tether. One of his two daughters was born with hip dysplasia and needed expensive medical treatment. This has left him with a broken marriage. In addition to alimony payments he owes $ 75,000 in medical bills. His house is mortgaged to the hilt and the gas has been cut off. During the day he works at Logan’s Paint Store, where he has been since leaving high school. On a diet of donuts and coffee it’s not surprising that he doesn’t sleep very well. His real misery, however, is that his ex-wife has taken his daughters to Las Vegas where they live with her new partner.
Pauline, a nurse at the local hospital is another shift worker with a bad diet and sleep problems. She looks after her father who spends his days lying on a military cot alone in the old family home watching television. Her mother left years before. Pauline abandoned her own dreams of marriage when she realised that the waster whom she loved was, like her father, always telling her what to do.
Leroy experiences morphine-induced waking dreams which consist of confused memories of his past and, increasingly, paranoid ideas about the future. As Freddie and Pauline orbit around Leroy in the first half of the book we wonder what will happen when their paths cross ?
In fact they spin off in other directions. Pauline takes a maternal interest in her patient Jo, a sixteen-year-old runaway, whom she wishes to save from the three junkie boys who are her alternative family.
Meanwhile in a moment of financial desperation Freddie agrees to house a friend’s marijuana plants in the basement of his house. He has to get rid of his model reconstruction of the Battle of Gettysburg to accommodate them and we wonder whether this arrangement may be an accident waiting to happen.
These people are all living close to the edge as a result of events outwith their control. They are the working poor who struggle to pay for basic health care. The old verities can no longer help them. Freddie’s boss at the paint store locks himself in his office to listen to an evangelical preacher on the radio. However, when Freddie tentatively asks him for an advance on his pay-check to tide him over, Christian charity is absent.
The only balm available in these harsh times are small acts of kindness. Mora, middle-aged, obese and with dyed-blonde hair, works at Heaven’s Door donuts. Freddie is a regular customer. When he feels that he can’t go on, she bolsters him: “You made me keep going when I didn’t want to. So don’t say you’re a failure. You’ve never failed me, Freddie”.
Things were better than this. When Freddie’s 1965 Mercury Comet finally gives out on the road, the mechanic remarks, “They don’t make them like that anymore…..Made in America…. Now Detroit’s gone to hell”.
The future isn’t too hopeful either according to Leroy’s drug-fuelled allegorical fantasy involving The Free, a dystopian vigilante group from whom he must save his girlfriend, Jeanette.
This aside we are for the most part firmly placed in the
American realist tradition of Hemingway, Steinbeck and Raymond Carver. The style is crisp with short and powerful scenes such as the one with Harvey Lowery, Leroy’s former boss – who had recruited him to the National Guard – and the Guard chaplain. Darla, Leroy’s mother, is not interested in their sympathy: “Harvey, I work at the Safeway on Fifth Street. I see you in there once in a while with your family. All I ask is that you shop somewhere else from now on. I just don’t want to see you again”.
The dedication of book is to the patron saint of nurses. Freddie’s advice to his daughters, “Remember to be nice. Remember to be kind.” would be a suitable epigraph. The flawed central characters rouse our sympathy and the book is a page-turner as we wish to discover what will become of them. A highly recommended state of the nation novel.
Faber & Faber/Paperback/£12.99/9780571300297
13 February 2014