Willy Vlautin will be best known to AUK readers as the guitarist and songwriter with Richmond Fontaine and The Delines. At the same time, he has been building a career as a novelist and short story writer.
The narrative nature of Vlautin’s songs is often mentioned in reviews of the Delines’ music. You can find the style of his songs in his prose. The characters we meet here and those in his songs share a bleak resignation to their lot in life. The story, although I’ll dodge giving too many incidents away as this is a story that relies on surprise for much of its impact, looks at the life of fifteen-year-old Charley Thompson. When he is left on his own, he winds up working with a failed racehorse, Lean On Pete, who he takes on a trip across the country looking for his aunt. The characters they meet on the way, Harry, Del and Lonnie, as well as Charley, are underdogs, with survival as their main goal in life. Vlautin’s sparse, unadorned prose paints the events that unfold around Charley as things he is powerless to control. He is almost a spectator in his own life, with is only real connection being the broken-down horse, Lean On Pete, and his father. The episodic nature of the book reinforces this, with people coming and going as Charley travels> His journey is as much internal as through the landscape of Oregon and Wyoming.
‘Motorcycle for a Horse’ is a spoken word companion piece to ‘Lean on Pete’. Currently available on Bandcamp and Faber Books Soundcloud channel, it contains a bit of music and some short, spoken word pieces that do spoil parts of the book. But they also throw some light on Charley and Lonnie’s characters. Certainly worth listening to, after you’ve read the book. ‘Lean On Pete’ was filmed in 2018, but for me the film tries too hard to fill in the blanks that the book leaves, making everyone we meet something of an enigma, their motives and desires obscure.
One scene in the later part of the book is set on Colfax Avenue, spiritual home of The Delines first album, released 4 years after this book. Vlautin’s writing whether for books or songs bleed into each other throughout ‘Lean On Pete’, and any fan of his bands will spot incidents and stories that have been reused in other forms. Richmond Fontaine’s excellent ‘Thirteen Cities’ album covers, at least partially, similar ground to this book. Charley could easily be ‘The Kid from Belmont Street’, and his father the person who fell into painting houses in Phoenix Arizona. The settings are different but the emotional landscapes are the same.
I came across Vlautin’s books on the merchandise stand at a Delines gig last summer. I got talking to a woman who had come to the show because she loved the books. She suggested this book as the place to start, promptly gave away the major incident of the plot and said “once you’ve read this you’ll be hooked on his writing”. She was right.
Willy Vlautin has been deservedly compared to other American literary figures, notably John Steinbeck. His work prose and lyrics has a sense of place to it that recalls other 20th century writers. Six novels and a pile of albums and short stories into his career he is shaping up to be one of the most notable writers of the first half of this century. You won’t read Vlautin’s books for light holiday fun, but if you want to understand a part of American life that doesn’t see much exposure he is the writer to consult.