America. It’s in a bad place. (If only for the fact that for everyone that would agree and say, yeah, it’s in a pretty bad place and, you know what, the rest of the world isn’t looking too great either, there will be a hundred baying dogs disagreeing, honking like geese, bellowing U!S!A! U!S!A!) It’s hard to be hopeful some days, about any of it. In 2017, Twin Peaks – The Return was probably the single piece of art that did the best, somehow, to reflect the darkness in which we find ourselves, in part by creating a confluence of puzzles that you had to bend your brain all out of shape to think about. There were no easy answers in Twin Peaks – The Return. Darkness, abstraction, violence and confusion was very much the order of the day. Willy Vlautin is about as far from David Lynch as you can get, in that Vlautin does not set out to confuse. Vlautin tells you a story and he wants you to understand it. He wants to shine a light on the kinds of people who don’t normally get talked about a whole lot. But given the current state of the world, even Vlautin struggles with the light right about now. Don’t Skip Out on Me is easily the darkest book he has ever written.
This is the story of Horace Hopper, a young man who works on a ranch for a Mr Reece and his wife. Think of Mr Reece as kin folk to Harold and Raymond from Kent Haruf’s Plainsong, Eventide and Benediction. He and his wife are the warm heart of this book, good folks, struggling to do right, fighting the good fight, working hard, behaving well to all they meet (without ever becoming two dimensional, they have their issues too – Mr Reece struggles with back pain, Mrs Reece has some mental health issues she’s up and down on). They think of Horace as their son, having worked on the ranch since he was 14 or so. Horace himself was abandoned by his mum, forgotten about by his dad, raised by a grandma with some issues of her own. If you come to Don’t Skip Out on Me with the famous Aristotle line (“Give me a child until he is 7 and I will show you the man”) in your head, you’ll see that Horace is just about as damaged as a person can be, and that the goodness he inherits from Mr Reece can’t wipe his slate clean.
He wants to be a Mexican pro-fighter, despite the fact he isn’t Mexican, doesn’t like Mexican food, is scared to pieces when he eventually gets to Mexico and admits he “doesn’t even like Mexican cars”. He’s a plain man, in lots of ways, with big dreams, nurtured on self-help books (that he clings to like the proverbial drowning man) – but he’s also someone who is resolutely glass is half empty. He leaves the farm because he has a dream and he knows he can’t live if he doesn’t give it his best shot, but he doesn’t know how to get where he is going, and he asks for help in the wrong places and, despite a number of triumphs, he takes a pounding too. He’s a brawler, he’s told at several points, and that’s good because he can hit “difficult like concrete”, but it also means he takes a battering, and he has a problem with freezing up in the ring too. Worse than this, though, alongside a sweet ignorance (on a late night call, Horace asks Mr Reece where all of the city’s waste goes, it’s one of many things he finds himself confounded by), Horace is lonely:
“Horace was alone in the city and he realised that being alone in the city was worse than being alone on the ranch. Because when he was alone on the ranch he had the dream of the city, the dream of what he would become in the city. But now he was there but still alone. He was just himself in another place.”
As the novel progresses, and gets progressively darker, for Horace at least, the kinds of peripheral characters emerge who actually are familiar from David Lynch (there’s a character called Stew who would not be out of place sitting next to Bobby Peru in Wild at Heart or even Frank Booth in Blue Velvet) – with the exception that Vlautin is explicit in what he thinks the problem is:
“‘You know, Horace, I was a baker for thirteen years. Now I’m out of work or taking these bullshit day-labour jobs. All because of the Government and the way things are. I’m telling you, there ain’t no real jobs for real Americans any more. And I’m afraid there ain’t ever gonna be again.'”
I imagine Don’t Skip Out on Me was a hard book for Vlautin to write. He’s said before (about Northline, I think) that he feels genuine empathy for what happens to his characters, that he wants the best for them. Right up until the last couple of paras, it could go either way. But like Dan Rhodes’ best book, Timoleon Vieta Come Home, this is a book that saves its biggest punch until the climax. If we were that way inclined, we would argue that just possibly Vlautin is saying that just being good people isn’t enough anymore. Either that, or it’s hopeless. Howsoever you cut it, Don’t Skip Out on Me will leave you with a dry, burning lump in your throat and an ache in your belly.
Any Cop?: Vlautin is a fucking Steinbeck in our book, and Don’t Skip Out on Me is a wolf howl in the long dark night of the American soul.