Thursday, April 30, 2015

Friday's Forgotten Book: Lean on Pete (Willy Vlautin)

A few years ago I taught at a charter school in Northern Nevada for a spell - the worst-run school that has ever existed, but that's a story for another time - and a very sizable number of my students were scathing on the subject of their parents or guardians, who led incredibly messy lives. The adults' track records with jobs, relationships, substances, and the law were checkered, to say the least. I thought of this during the opening chapters of Willy Vlautin's mesmerizing Lean on Pete, which is told from the perspective of a 15-year-old boy, Charley Thompson, who also lives in the hard-luck contemporary West and could easily have been one of my students.

Charley's mother abandoned him, and although his father kept him, dad has zero sense of what it takes to be a parent. During the novel, Charley will have to learn to fend without his father, but that is only a half-step removed from having him around, because he is pretty useless to begin with.

Especially given his unpromising circumstances, Charley is a very decent kid. He plays football and truly enjoys it. He likes animals and instinctively knows how to treat them. When his dad relocates from Spokane, Washington, to Portland, Oregon, Charley in tow, the boy drifts into the milieu of a local tumble-down racetrack that has seen much better days. He winds up doing odd jobs for an old coot, Del Montgomery, who abuses his low-value racehorses, and it is one of those, the quarterhorse Lean on Pete, who gives his name to the novel.

The racetrack world is depicted here entirely without sentimentality, and the underground world of unsanctioned bush track racing turns out to be even scuzzier. Del is a dirty, disagreeable pervert. But Charley hangs on because he needs the money and he cares for the horses, especially Lean on Pete, who he talks to in the way that so many of us talk to animals. He has never before met such a good listener.

As events he has no control over start to overwhelm him, Charley moves into survival mode, stealing frequently, defending himself as he has to. He could easily become just another casuallty. Will he? That is the drama of the story.

Willy Vlautin is an singer / songwriter with the band Richmond Fontaine as well as a novelist; his second novel Northline actually came with a soundtrack CD in its original printing. Vlautin's practice as a lyricist enables him to pare his language down in a way that provides a very convincing voice for Charley Thompson. Charley is usually matter-of-fact, but occasionally expresses his situation with more urgency:

The thoughts in my head were swirling. I'd seen a lot of things. I'd seen my dad do things. I'd seen him having sex with women. I'd seen him bending women over our couch and ramming into them and I'd seen them in the kitchen sitting on top of him saying things to him. I'd seen him puking his guts out in the sink and snorting cocaine and smoking weed. I saw a woman passed out in the back of our car in nothing but a bra. I saw her pee on the seat. I saw a guy get a broken beer bottle pushed in his face while we were at a daytime barbecue. I'd seen my dad hit my aunt in the face and call her names when all she did was tell him to come back when he wasn't so drunk and mean. I'd seen him wreck her car and then abandon it. I'd seen him talk to the police. I saw a kid get hit so hard that he began to foam at the mouth and go into seizures and I'd seen a kid shoot a dog in the head with a .22. I'd seen another kid tear the pajamas off his sister just so he could see her down there. She was screaming and crying. And I'd seen Del punch a horse as hard as he could and I'd seen a horse break his leg and wobble around on three while the broke one was held on by only skin.

Charley finds some relief in going to the movies, when he can afford to or can sneak in, and in watching movies on TV. His brief plot descriptions often raise a smile:

When the time came for the seven o'clock showing I went inside and sat through two movies. One was about an undercover spy who gets chased all around Europe and the other was about a group of women who get trapped in a cave. The women were good-looking but it was a horror movie and I can never sleep after horror movies.
That night I made a package of Hamburger Helper and spent the rest of the evening eating off it and watching a movie on TV about a hockey player who gets too many concussions and they make him quit so he ends up as a bartender but even so he still skates and then he meets this girl who's a famous skater and they become skate partners. It was a pretty bad movie but the girl was beautiful and she falls in love with the hockey player and then they win a gold medal.
It was still pretty early so I walked around for a while, then I went to the movies and saw one about a good-looking girl who has a crazy father who thinks there is treasure buried underneath a Costco. They end up jack-hammering through the concrete floor and finding a hidden river and a bunch of gold.

Beneath the deceptively plain surface of Lean on Pete, there are rivers of hidden emotion and and a bunch of literary gold.  

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