If I was to tell you, in maybe one or two sentences, what Lean on Pete was about, it’s possible – if you aren’t familiar with Willy Vlautin’s previous novels, The Motel Life & Northline, say – you’d think, hey, that sounds like some bizarre TV pilot that never got commissioned. Lean on Pete is, in a way, a sort of buddy novel and a sort of road novel. A sort of buddies on the road novel, if the buddies were a 15 year old boy named Charley Thompson and a decrepit horse called Lean on Pete. Right, you might say. That sounds great. But you wouldn’t mean it. You’d say the word great as if it was a word that needed scraping off your shoe. And you know what? You’d be wrong. But convincing you otherwise is possibly a hard sell (but only if you’ve not read any Vlautin before – if you’re familiar with Vlautin, you’ll be all over this).
Charley and his Dad have just moved to Portland, Oregon. Summer has just begun. Charley’s Dad takes a job as a forklift driver which keeps him out of the house for hours at a time and Charley fills his days running and exploring and, when he gets strapped for cash, stealing the odd can of food from the nearest mini-mart. In order to stave off reliance on hand-outs from his old man, he takes a temporary job at the nearby Portland Meadows race track (where Vlautin was apparently known to spend some of his time between touring and recording with his band Richmond Fontaine once upon a time), clearing out stables and looking after horses for a mean old sack of shit called Del Montgomery (who – when we first ran this review back in 2010, we said “you can imagine being played by Steve Buscemi if they ever come to make a movie of Lean on Pete – and that’s exactly who is playing him in the actual film – called it!). Del is on his uppers, given to drinking and cursing and forgetting, prone to cheating, packing his horses full of pills to get them to run faster, easily pissed when they don’t win, volatile and mercurial. Charley treads carefully but gradually comes to learn something of the track, even as he befriends one of Del’s horses, the aforementioned Lean on Pete. After his dad comes a cropper at the hands of a meaty Samoan who throws him through a plate-glass window, and with Pete within nodding distance of the knacker’s yard, Charley takes off, stealing Del’s car and trailer with Pete in tow. It is this point, arguably, when Lean on Pete shakes off the familiar dust of Vlautin’s previous books and sets off into uncharted territory.
The middle third of the novel follows Charley and Pete as they make their way across country, Charley trying to get as far as Wyoming, Wyoming being the place Charley’s aunt lived some years previous, before she fell out with his Dad. Reading very much like a contemporary Western, Vlautin has Charley and Pete encounter all manner of people on their journey, from guys playing video games in a camper van in the middle of nowhere who get a kick out of pestering Pete to a friendly Mexican who shakes them awake and offers breakfast apropos of nothing. But don’t be sidetracked by the odd early wistfulness; Vlautin’s characters are strugglers, people who have had it tough, people who know that more tough is right around the corner. Things get pretty bad for Charley. Things get pretty bad, then they get worse – and then, right after that, they take another turn – yes, that’s right, for the even worse. Picked up by the police, slammed in juvie, wrongly blamed for sniffing glue, beat up in an alley way. If you can think of something bad that could happen to a kid on the road, you can be sure it probably happens to Charley.
But there’s also great warmth and great wisdom to Vlautin’s books too and that warmth and that wisdom is in evidence here. The wisdom is served up in small cups (maybe a waitress will offer some parting nugget for the road, maybe some stranger will offer a ride and a bon mot) but it’s wisdom all the same – and the warmth and the wisdom save the characters from doing themselves in when things get too dark and save you, the reader, from an unremitting Cormac McCarthy-fest (Vlautin is firmly in the tradition of John Steinbeck – life is hard but not so hard that you can’t find some reason to go on). What on the surface may look like a boy and horse road novel turns out to be something much more complex: as with The Motel Life and Northline, this is a story of a boy, struggling to get by, living life at the edge of not getting by, occasionally despairing but somehow managing to wake up every day with hope, with a kind of hope, the sort of bruised hope that will no doubt be familiar to Vlautin readers. Some of the urgency of the previous books is gone (before, there was always the feeling that Vlautin maybe doubted his good luck and wrote slim novels that he hoped would sneak under the radar – now that it’s clear he has a following and that people like what he does, he can breathe a little easier – Lean on Pete certainly feels lighter, in that sense, that his other books).
For some reason, however, it’s hard to actually hit the nail firmly on the head when it comes to explaining why Lean on Pete – and indeed Willy Vlautin – is so good. This is one of those rare cases where, as you try and explain what makes the novel so damn satisfying, you find yourself hearing the words you speak and finding them hollow or in no way up to the job. You might just have to take my word on this. Go buy Lean on Pete. Read the damn thing. You’ll know what I mean.
Any Cop?: The long and the short of it is – if you’ve read Vlautin’s previous books, then you should make a bee-line for this. It’s at least as good as those books. If you haven’t read Vlautin before, what the hell is wrong with you?!?