William Kennedy, October 20, 2010
(view all comments by William Kennedy)
Willy Vlautin has successfully carved out a niche for himself writing about the lives of the down and out, the depressed, and the hopeless. In his first two novels, he used this specific stroy structure with effectiveness, but now on this, his third novel, it is beginning to wear a little thin.
It's not easy to rise above constant comparions to writers like Raymond Carver and John Fante and Bukowski. This sets the reader into expecting a certain level, if not quality of work.
Willy's style of writing is essentially a lack of style, he writes plainly and simply. There is no poetry or beauty in his words. The emotions you feel while reading his work are visceral reactions, not heightened states of awareness like other authors can draw out of a reader. That said, he used this "style," this spare, stripped down prose to great effect in "The Motel Life", which really is a fanatstic debut novel. He followed up with "Northline," which is also a good read, but is also the book during which the simplicity of his prose begins to become monotonous. He has developed the unfortunate habit of telling us every mundane detail of a character's life with very little attention paid to the internal struggles or fears. He will literally describe a character tying his shoes, brushing his teeth, eating a meal, without any stylistic flourishes. It starts to sound too much like real life...which may be the point, but I want to see real life through a clearer lens.
The trouble with "Lean on Pete" is not story, this is something Willy does well. He besets his characters with hardship after hardship and allows them to overcome, or at least, survive. It is in rendering these awful events with a completely unblinking eye that we start to lose the impact of devastation. For example, in "Lean On Pete", death makes an appearance more than once, yet through the eyes of Charley (the fifteen year old narrator) we feel none of his pain. In fact, through out most of the book I was wondering whether or not this kid had any feelings at all. Vlautin chooses not to let us inside his head, Charley tells his story as if numb to all that's happening around him. I want to root for Charley, I want to see him succeed, but it's so much easier to track with a character if you feel, as a reader, that you can relate, or at least understand and sympathize with what they are going through.
Halfway through "Lean On Pete" I wanted it to be over, it is more or less the same formula as Vlautin's previous two books. Take good hearted characters, beat them to hell, and have them make it out on the other side...maybe not better, but at least alive. You could combine all three of Vlautin's novels into one volume and not notice any variation in voice, style, or prose.
I don't expect much from writers I appreciate, but I do long to grow with an artist. To track with them as they employ new methods, new techniques, and even new genres. Willy seems stuck, which is too bad because he does write well, but it's too...polite. I wish he would branch out and write something furious and burning.
Although I was disappointed with "Lean On Pete," I whole heartedly recommend "The Motel Life" and "Northline."