Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Review: "The Free" by Willy Vlautin

As I’ve grown older, I found that a lot of the novels, mainly the famous ones, of American author John Steinbeck have not aged very well. They are good stories, and on the surface they are simple tales of good and evil and trying, and most of the time, failing to make a name for yourself. While those ideas are always going to be timeless, it is the political aspect of those books that I feel has lost some of its luster, mainly his tendency to over-romanticize the idea of the workingman and his fight against a faceless society that is hell bent on destroying them. The idea of the workingman has changed quite a bit since the great depression to include office workers and people in the retail industry, and not rugged men working in fields struggling to put food on the table and a roof over their heads. While that person still exists, it is lot less common now, with middle class working stiffs a bit better off, with that kind of desperation replaced with the concept of “making ends meet”. But for that person Steinbeck loved, we have an author like Willy Vlautin, whose novel, The Free, is a little more intimate than something like The Grapes of Wrath, and feels more like an elongated version of a Raymond Carver story. And for all it’s focus on an idealized version of the working outdated, I still think this novel is a great and memorable read. The novel focuses on three different characters, each trying to make a life out of petty and pathetic circumstances while trying to do so with dignity. The story opens as Leroy, a young man who enlisted in the National Guard, thinking it was not going to require him to fight, is living in a Veteran’s home, severely wounded in Iraq, struggling to make any sense of the life he now leads. He once had a girlfriend who loved him and a bright future. Now he can’t remember things that happened a day ago. In a desperate move, he tries to kill himself, but he survives, and lives in a world in his head based around the Science fiction novels he reads. Freddie, the night watchman at the home, works two jobs, gets little sleep and is slowly losing everything that he has left, including his home. Pauline, a nurse at the hospital where Leroy is in a coma, is drifting through life with little to care about, when a young runaway sparks a need in her to do right. I like how Vlautin creates suspense without blood and guts, making what happens real without piling up the bodies, with the emotion found in certain harrowing scenes of sadness, such as Leroy’s mother reading to hid body, Freddie’s lazy and unprofessional boss, and one of the saddest sexual encounters I’ve read in fiction involving Pauline, a guy named Ford and a Red Roof Inn. Despite the book’s flaws, like the alternate reality Leroy creates taking away from the human drama in the real world, this book has a lot of heart and passion in its pages, and you should definitely check it out.

Rating: 5/5

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