‘What you don’t understand is that at one time we had the greatest country in the world. Now it ain’t shit and it’s people like you who’ve ruined it. People who don’t stand up for the flag. Who don’t take their hat off when the anthem plays. Who won’t sacrifice. For years the politicians gave everything to people who were too fucked up to hold a job or too lazy to do anything but lay on their backs and pump out kids who end up in prison or on welfare. But your turn is over.’
This is one of the men from The Free talking, The Free being a vigilante group who track down and kill anyone who has the mark, the mark being a sort of state mandated test that colours your skin like a bruise if you’re the kind of person described above, leastways according to some people. Leroy Kervin, an Iraq war veteran, is fleeing in the company of his girlfriend Jeanette, the two of them trying to find a place where they wont be persecuted for the fact that Jeanette has the mark. Except, of course, Leroy isn’t going anywhere. He is laid up, in a coma, having injured himself when he woke, finally lucid, after months of being lost in his own head, worried that the lucidity wouldn’t last. Leroy is fighting for his life – and while he fights, his dream self struggles on, pursued by marines and various members of The Free, double crossed by boat engineers and confounded at every step.
But Leroy is not the only focus of Vlautin’s fourth novel. The perspective shifts between Leroy, a beleaguered nurse called Pauline and a guy called Freddie McCall with occasional interludes from Leroy’s mum Darla. Pauline befriends a young girl called Jo who has shacked up with some wrong uns and developed abcesses on her legs (Pauline sees something of herself in Jo and wants to save her – but the thing about people who need saving is they rarely know how they can be). Freddie is doing his best, but his marriage has failed and he is about to lose his house despite working two jobs and sleeping about two hours a night; a business opportunity offers some promise that things could get better but we know things can’t really get much better for Freddie or indeed any of these people. And Darla works a till in a nearby convenience store, looking drawn as she sits with her son reading him science fiction novels that maybe he can’t hear.
This is the Vlautin heartland: stories of the kinds of people that the very rich would no doubt despise and dismiss, living painful lives, finding odd moments of kindness in the early hours of the morning over a bag of doughnut holes – but there is no sense of Vlautin treading ground. The fantasy element of the book – whilst not as strong as the Freddie and Pauline sections – shows how he is pushing himself to try something new (and parts of it resemble Paul Auster’s Man in the Dark), as do the random intercuts with characters who deserve stories in their own right (such as the sweet and strange old man Freddie sells his trains to). The way in which damaged people rub alongside each other makes for a tremendously affecting read, though. Here is Pauline on a date, talking to a fella who obviously likes her. Everything you need to know about Pauline is here:
“I’m not going to end up doing your laundry, and calling to see where you are. I’m not… I’m not going to fix you dinner to hear you say you hate it, or for you to not say anything at all. I’m not going to do any of that. If you say I’m too fat or if you start being mean to me or make me feel bad about myself, I won’t ever see you again.”
There are similarities to both Steinbeck and Haruf, but Vlautin has something all of his own, something that lurks in the interstices of his simple, undeclarative sentences, a pragmatic kindness, a knowledge that his people may not make it out the other side in one piece and yet for all that life goes on, in spite of hard times. As with his earlier novels, The Motel Life, Northline and Lean on Pete you come away from Vlautin painfully aware of the blessings of your life, cherishing what you have and maybe others don’t.
Any Cop?: Vlautin fans have nothing to worry about. If you’ve read any or all of his earlier books, and warmed to what it is he does, then you are in safe hands here.