on 13 February 2014
There’s a synopsis here so I’m not going to re-tell the story. Willy Vlautin’s favourite two words are “… and left”. They come at the end of many scenes, simply saying that’s it, now on to the next bit. It’s typical of his quiet, economical use of language. There are no unnecessary flowery descriptions because the important things are the people and their lives. There’s delicious use of leit-motif. Leroy and Jeanette always buy Rainier beer and listen to Amália Rodriguez. Nurse Pauline always asks her patients to rate their pain on a scale of one to ten, Freddie is comforted daily by Pat from the donut van, while Freddie’s boss comes to work every day clutching a bottle of soda and a different frozen meal. The touching mundanity of these people’s lives is set out simply by description of what they do. We all have familiar routines in our lives that we cling on to. You find all you need to know about Freddie’s dire finances just by reading his list of outgoings. It’s a style that is entirely Vlautin’s own, and his many fans would have been happy with just that. In The Free, however, there’s a new and fascinating element. Leroy’s mind is telling him an altogether different kind of story, an almost supernatural tale of a frightening and totalitarian society though which he and his girlfriend Jeanette struggle and flee. It’s almost like a separate and contrasting book and the way it is interwoven with the stories of Pauline and Freddie adds a whole new excitement to Vlautin’s engaging style. It’s hard to explain how the story is so gripping while mainly being so quiet, so warm, despite the struggles everyone goes through. There’s hardly anyone bad here, and a range of people who are extraordinarily good in the face of poverty, illness and adversity. By this I mean morally good, unselfish, uncomplaining, kind to others. Even the poor exploited Jo is redeemable and the pot growers seem nice, almost honest. Freddie and Pauline are the kinds of people you’d just love to meet and give a cuddle to. You really feel you know them and you certainly love them. There’s no pot-boiling plot or exciting end here. It’s about brilliantly creating an atmosphere that ensures you care deeply about everyone involved. Just wonderful.
The opening passages of this extraordinary book hit hard at the stark reality of a disabled war victim and the subsequent impact on his carers and his own reminiscences, often fantasised, but emphatic on how difficult the struggles to keep some control on reality are accompanied by hardship. Leroy Kervin was a survivor of a roadside bomb whilst serving a soldier in Iraq, suffering major brain trauma. Survival becomes an existence where he 'couldn't speak and he couldn't walk'. After extensive rehabilitation he functions on a basic level, with total memory loss. After seven years, his clarity of thought returns when he remembers his lost years. Not wishing to return to his previous non-existence, an attempted suicide finds him on life-support with the attention of nurse Pauline and the continued friendship of night-watchman, Freddie, from his care home.
Leroy has reality nightmares, Pauline is subjected to her own ordeals, with her work, her son and Leroy's family. Freddie is under pressure to keep his family in order, personally and financially. The protagonists are all trapped in their own worlds, some real, some partly fantasised. Willy Vlautin encapsulates the whole horrific ordeal into an engrossing, compassionate and compelling novel. It remains unsentimental, yet is the author's clear portrayal of an aspect of American life. The characters are alive and kicking with memories that will survive this unforgettable book.
Leroy, a damaged survivor of the Iraq war, uses a rare moment of lucidity to make a failed suicide attempt. As he lies in hospital, his surreal dreams of a dystopian world are intercut with the stories of those involved in caring for him: the moonlighting night warden Freddie, or nurse Pauline who always has time to talk to her patients with empathy.
Willy Vlautin writes about the daily lives of ordinary people with more than their fair share of bad luck, to which they may have added a few mistakes. Despite this, they manage to retain the will to persevere combined with decency and kindness. Some reviewers have commented that the frequent repetition of drinking Rainier beers or buying certain kinds of junk food in the supermarket serves as a kind of mantra, but for me, the banality often becomes oppressive and the book is just saved from tedium by a few dramatic or moving events, and the author’s ability to arouse sympathy, liking and even respect for people one might overlook or undervalue in real life. For a while, I feared the story might end in mawkish sentimentality, but it is in fact darker than Northline, the only other novel by Vlautin that I have read.
Vlautin’s style is simple and direct, focused on often minute description. For instance, not the first description of nurse Pauline’s feet: “She bent over and took off her shoes. She set her feet on top of them and leaned back in her chair”. Or, the description of Freddie packing up his beloved train set to sell for much needed cash, rather than of his grief over having to do this: “Freddie McCall found an empty cardboard box and began wrapping toy trains in newspaper. There were eight in total and he set those on the bottom of the box, and put all twenty boxcars on top of them. In another box he put his remaining track and switches, transformers and various wagons and buildings”…..and so on.
In some ways it is refreshing to encounter an author who clearly writes from the heart with a great natural enjoyment of the process, but does not appear to have set foot in a creative writing class, or to have paid any attention to it if he did. On the other hand, the narrative suitable for a reading age of eight, in vocabulary if not subject matter, often left me gasping for a metaphor or an introspective thought. Yet, the next novel I read will probably seem pretentious, and Vlautin’s portrayal of what lies beneath the surface of the fool's gold glitter of the world’s leading economy (for the time being) will stay in my mind for some time.
on 31 January 2015
I read it in small bites because I wanted to savour each section and as I came to the end, didn't really want to finish. It's a complex tale that builds up through the telling of a number of simple stories. Leroy is the veteran of the Iraq war who is a hospital patient and who survives in an imaginary world where he's on the run with his girlfriend. They're being chased by right-wing conservative vigilantes who are brutal and unflinching in their pursuit of the eradication of the mild. Though a central character in the piece, Leroy is also like the skeleton that allows the flesh of the novel to stand up. The flesh comes in the form of two wonderful people who work in Leroy's hospital. Pauline is a nurse with an enormous heart who gets by in spite of the weight of life she has to carry. Freddie is the night watchman who cares for the patients and also holds down a dead-end job in a paint store; the weight of medical bills and general misfortune are constantly threatening to wear Freddie's life down and every day brings a new battle. The celebration of Pauline and Freddie is surely also a celebration of those who care in general, the working poor and the nursing profession in particular. Pick up a copy and see if you don't enjoy Freddie's routine stop at the donut shop as much as I did. It's a special story that makes me extremely grateful that we have the National Health Service here in the UK - let's not let that fall apart under any circumstances.
This book was chosen for discussion at a book group I belong to. The person whose choice it was had a CD of music made by the writer and was intrigued that this musician was also a writer. I had never heard of Willy Vlautin before this. Unusually for a book group there was universal agreement that everyone enjoyed it.
Other reviewers have commented on Vlautin's spare writing style. I really appreciated this as it brought absolute clarity to what was happening in the story and really drew the reader into the lives of the main characters.
This is a novel set in (I presume) one of the western states of America, either Washington or Oregon. All characters are damaged and poor. This is not the well heeled optimistic America you see in movies but one in which industry is moribund and people have to work more than one job in order to make ends meet.
The characters are all engaging and in their small way heroic. We have the catatonic wounded serviceman, Leroy, Freddie, father of two girls, one seriously disabled whose disability has caused his family to break up causing him to work two or three jobs to cope with the medical expenses and Pauline a nurse at the hospital who shows a great deal of compassion to her patients.
Alongside this, Leroy is constantly dreaming lurid dreams of being pursued by The Free, a vigilante group seeking out "unpatriotic" Americans and killing them in the most brutal way imaginable. These victims have "the Mark" which distinguishes them. Presumably, the dreams are a reflection of Leroy's brutalised condition from his Iraq war days.
A very worthwhile read
on 5 July 2014
Although I could see the merits of this book, unfortunately it just didn't hold my attention; I didn't engage with any of the characters, and I found the writing was somehow cold, and distanced me from the narrative. Undoubtedly a very good book, but just not for me.
Willy Vlautin’s 4th novel is an extraordinary and deeply compassionate story, heartbreakingly real and quite unforgettable. He’s a writer who is nowhere near as well-known and appreciated as he deserves to be, and I hope that this beautiful book will enhance his reputation and bring him to a wider audience.
The book follows three main protagonists, whose lives intersect as they struggle to find the courage, decency and strength to combat the raw deal life has thrown at them. It opens with Leroy Kervin, a wounded young Iraq war veteran waking to momentary clarity in the group home in which he has been living for some years. Realising that this moment of clarity may not last, and full of despair when he contemplates his future, he attempts suicide. Discovered by the night-time guardian Freddie McCall he is rushed to hospital where he is nursed by Pauline Hawkins. All three of them are trapped in difficult and seemingly hopeless circumstances largely beyond their control, and have to cope with the problems that beset modern day America – the aftermath of wars, poverty, expensive medical care, drugs and unemployment. But in spite of this they hold onto their basic goodness and decency, they refuse to be defeated, and this portrait of a small community, with chapters alternating between the three of them, interspersed with Leroy’s nightmares, is a haunting and unforgettable tale that cannot fail to move the most hard-hearted and pragmatic of readers.
I’ve only recently discovered Willy Vlautin myself and have now become quite evangelical about his writing. This is a powerful and disturbing book, but its grim storyline is infused with tenderness and empathy for ordinary people doing their best, unsentimental but always gentle and ultimately uplifting. Highly recommended.
on 30 June 2014
The Free is about three characters and the people around them, each trying to make it in through some very tough circumstances. Leroy Kervin returned from the war in Iraq with a traumatic brain injury suffered when his vehicle was hit by a roadside bomb. Now, living in a group home, he's unable to take care of himself. Freddie McCall is divorced with two kids that live with their mom and a new dad in another state. He has two low paying jobs jobs and makes barely enough to pay his bills, which include huge medical bills for his daughter. One of those jobs is a night watchman at the home where Leroy lives. Pauline Hawkins looks after her mentally ill father and is a nurse in the hospital who takes care of Leroy when he is there. She's a very caring person who sometimes gets too involved in her patient's problems. Each of these people has tremendous obstacles that confront them and in this book Willy Vlautin brings us into their lives with a sensitivity and depth that I don't often find in a story like this. I couldn't help but see the erosion of the American dream through the lives of these characters. They are not unlike so many in our society today. It was a disturbing but at the same time somewhat hopeful. The characters were very well developed. An excellent book.
on 13 August 2016
I am so devastatingly sad that I have just finished this book. I feel bereft. It is over. I have asked my daughter to read it so I can talk about it with her. This book has simply blown me away. I love Vlautin's writing and have now ordered his other 3 offerings. Wonderful
on 6 April 2014
The latest novel from the terrific Willy Vlautin is something a little different from his previous work and is a bit of a mixed bag. It focuses on 3 central characters - Leroy, an Iraq veteran who attempts suicide while in a nursing home; Freddie, an employee at the nursing home, who works two jobs to pay for his estranged daughter's medical bills (and who - in classic Vlautian style - is heroically, unsuccessfully, fighting against the almighty arse-kicking that life regularly dishes out to him); and finally Pauline, a night shift nurse who is treading water as her emotionally dysfunctional father continues to dominate her life. It is the beaten Freddie who is the most affecting anti-hero hero, whose tragic tale drags you down to the same emotional depths as Charley, the fragile and fractured boy-hero of Vlautin's best book, 'Lean on Pete'. As Willy jumps from character to character in each chapter, you are left wanting more from Freddie, the injustice and total devastation life has wreaked upon him is as compelling as it is touching. Pauline, too, is a character whose travails hold your emotions. She keeps her life as empty as possible - no husband, no boyfriend, no kids - while she dutifully looks after her patients and her unstable father. Until she treats a teenage junkie, who provokes a different emotion in her, a sense of responsibility separate from the clinical world of nursing or her perfunctory relationship with her father. Whereas with Freddie you are left with no doubt what would fix him, you are left guessing what heal Pauline. Unfixable is Freddie, whose war injuries have left him vegetative. In a sudden moment of clarity, he summons the strength to kill himself, leaving him comatosed in Pauline's care. Due to his state, his story is played out in the form of dystopian dreams, laden with metaphor, which are overlong and fail to fully emotionally connect. The chopping and changing between character and variation of emotional connectvity with the reader mean that 'The Free', while very readable, is not a wholly successful exercise. If you are already a Willy Vlautin fan, it will only confirm your love of the man, but new readers may be better placed starting with one of his earlier, ultimately better works.