Willy Vlautin: my Lean on Pete review

Lean On Pete
By Willy Vlautin
Faber & Faber, €15.60

Towards the close of Willy Vlautin’s enthralling third novel, Lean On Pete, there’s a scene in which his lead character, 15-year-old Charley Thompson, is invited to tea with a new friend called Santiago, who has begun to suspect Charley is homeless. Charley has a nice time, eating tortillas and chatting to Santiago’s wife and kids. Afterwards, it’s hard. ‘‘When I left there I was pretty down,” Charley describes. ‘‘I never understand why seeing something nice can get you so down but it can.”

It’s a typically understated moment – which Vlautin has pitched just right. Charley moves on quickly to talk about something else, but the reader can’t help but feel wretched for him, and to feel anger and sympathy for all that he has experienced – and a flickering of fear at what is to come.

Lean On Pete is an absolutely wonderful book. If I read a better novel this year, I’ll be surprised. Relying on simple language – the story is told through Charley’s sturdy first person narrative – it has a ring of authenticity to it, and qualities of grace and sympathy that make it impossible to put down: I read it almost without pausing for breath.

I should add a proviso: it’s also one of the darkest books I’ve read in a long time. Even when the book begins, things are not good for Charley. His mother has long vanished (‘‘She’s just fucked-up in the head and likes to party too much’’), and his father Ray has brought him from Spokane to Portland, Oregon, where he has found a job as a forklift driver for Willig Freight Lines.

In Portland, Charley has no friends and – with the long days of summer stretching ahead of him – not even school to fill out the hours. Ray is a distant figure, leaving Charley for days at a time while he’s on the road – and regularly failing to give him enough money to take care of himself, forcing him to steal food from supermarkets.

Vlautin’s style is reminiscent of Raymond Carver or Denis Johnson, with prose that is spare, careful, fluid, beautifully pitched and paced. Isolated and nervous, Charley finds it hard to sleep alone in the house, and matters are made worse when his father jokes about ‘‘the Samoan’’, the ‘‘nuts’’ husband of Ray’s new squeeze Lynn, who might come after Ray if he finds out what he’s up to. Vlautin outlined the horror of panic attacks in his previous novel, Northline, and the thrum and nervous tension of them is never far from the surface of this novel; Charley is surviving, but he’s doing so by nailing his bedroom door shut at night.

Charley knows that Portland will be worse for him than Spokane: ‘‘At least I had friends in Spokane.” In fact, his only friend in Portland arrives in an unlikely form: Lean On Pete is a five-year-old quarter horse that Charley befriends when he manages to net a barely-paid job with Del Montgomery, a balding,70-odd horse trainer with a large gut and few morals.

Del has no compunction about injecting Pete with amphetamines to make him run faster – or having Charley watch when he and his friend Harry have sex with a prostitute at a cheap motel.

One of the hardest things about a first person narrative featuring a teenager is the problem of how to get information across that a 15-year-old might not naturally have access to: Vlautin vaults this obstacle with ease. It helps that the adults in his narrative are almost uniformly either deeply ignorant or lacking a guiding moral compass; they’ll say or do anything in front of a child.

Vlautin makes it chillingly clear that they’re caught in the same poverty and ignorance trap as Charley – they’re just a little older, that’s all. Ray tries ham fistedly occasionally to advise Charley (‘‘It’s good to go grocery shopping on a full stomach’’; ‘‘All the best women have been waitresses at some point’’),but lacks any real inclination to guide his son’s development. Ray simply isn’t there for Charley.

Perhaps for that reason, when Ray winds up in hospital, it’s not nearly as emotional as when Lean On Pete is diagnosed as potentially navicular – and Del debates sending him to the knacker’s yard.

Unlike the humans, Lean On Pete has never hurt Charley – and Charley, in turn, adores him and will do anything to protect him. When Charley runs away with Lean on Pete in the hope of tracking down his aunt, he finds himself up against insurmountable odds.

His is an America of scavenging in bins for food, trying to navigate Pete safely past unsavoury characters, and waiting for people to leave fast-food restaurants so he can take their leftovers. It’s heartrending stuff.

In fact, the only misstep comes late in the book, when Charley opens up with a revealing summary of how harsh his life prior to Portland was: in truth, there was no need to offer such a summary, because it was already implied in every nuance of Charley’s behaviour.

Otherwise, Vlautin – whose day job is as a member of alternative country band Richmond Fontaine – has penned a novel that is deeply memorable, and often breathtaking. Hugely recommended.

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