At times in Willy Vlautin’s fourth novel, The Free, I found myself wondering if I was reading or had in fact drifted while watching a documentary. The stories in this realist fiction so well match America’s working underclass of today I felt I could easily have been watching a news exposé; here, Vlautin introduces three characters to demonstrate the dire state of the working poor.
Leroy Kervin has lived in a group home for the past eight years after being severely wounded in Iraq; he naively enlisted in the National Guard, believing it would help with his existing job security. Waking one night to an unusual moment of lucidity he makes a decision that will see him stuck between the constant pain of his life and a science-fiction dream world. Freddie McCall works night shift at the group home and a day shift at the paint store he has worked at since high school. He is physically, emotionally and financially exhausted. Still living in the house his grandfather built, he knows that he will soon lose it, just like he lost his wife and kids. Pauline Hawkins is a nurse at the local hospital. She is a great nurse, wonderful with her patients, but has learnt to disconnect at the end of each shift, though one patient, a young girl, will make it difficult for her to walk away.
What makes this all so good is the honesty and simplicity of Vlautin’s writing. Although it’s a depressing tale, I never felt I was being manipulated into feeling for the characters, and that is a task. Vlautin highlights that other side of the human condition: hope and goodwill. I can’t wait to backtrack and read his earlier novels.
Suzanne Steinbruckner works as a bookseller at Readings St Kilda.
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