Lean on Pete
by Willy Vlautin
Reviewed by Cheryl Strayed
There's a sentence on the 21st page of Willy Vlautin's first novel, The Motel Life, that goes: "I saw a small black bird trying to fly in the wind all alone." It stopped me, the way every once in a while a sentence will. I'd never read anything by Willy Vlautin before, and though I was only 21 pages into his literary world, I sensed instinctually that that sentence was telling me something about what Vlautin has to say as writer. After reading my way through that book and his second novel, Northline, and his latest, Lean on Pete, I knew that I was right.
Willy Vlautin writes novels about people all alone in the wind. His prose is direct and complex in its simplicity, and his stories are sturdy and big-hearted and full of lives so shattered they shimmer. All of his novels are good, but Lean on Pete is his best. In it, Vlautin narrates a summer in the life of Charley Thompson, a 15-year-old boy who has recently relocated to Portland with his father. Charley is essentially alone from the start -- his father is off at work and presumably with his new lover for days on end -- but soon he finds himself truly alone, and his life becomes even more desperate.
Vlautin writes about Charley's search to find a place in the world in vivid, plainspoken, no razzmatazz detail, and spins a story about an orphaned boy and a broken racehorse and a harrowing but beautiful journey that's impossible to forget.
I loved this book. I hoped I would -- Vlautin is, after all, an Oregon writer, like me -- and I'd heard nothing but praise about his work. Frankly, in spite of this, I had my doubts. There's so much buzz around Vlautin that I wondered how much of it had to do with his indisputably cool reputation vs. what he'd actually written.
In addition to being a novelist, Vlautin is the lead singer and songwriter of the indie band Richmond Fontaine. Journalists like to write awestruck stories about how Vlautin's work reminds them of Raymond Carver's and how he befriends waitresses at local working-class diners and how he composes his books in the grandstands at Portland Meadows while the horses race.
On top of all that, he's a guy, and his tender, redemptive novels about poor white people whose lives have been defined by poverty and abuse and alcohol and bad luck are regarded by default as serious American literature when similar novels by his female counterparts are often consigned to the more lowbrow world I'll call Oprahland.
But Vlautin won me over. He's so much more than cool. I don't care if he hangs out at the racetrack. I care about whether he delivers. And in Lean on Pete, he most certainly does. His prose is strong, his storytelling is honest, and he sticks to it scene by scene. By the time Lean on Pete reaches its sweet but unsentimental end, Charley Thompson isn't a character in a novel, but a boy readers have come to love. Lean on Pete riveted me. Reading it, I was heartbroken and moved; enthralled and convinced. This is serious American literature.