Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Lean on Pete, by Willy Vlautin

I wish I were as talented a writer as Willy Vlautin. Then I'd be able to explain how the combination of his writing, and his music, and his attire, and his interview style all touch me. I have always been fascinated by a certain type of male writer. The kind who is really smart, mostly blue collar, who determinedly pursues his quirky interests, and does not seem to be concerned about the trappings of success. Manly, but emotional. In my mind, he drinks and smokes and is handy, and he reads a lot. Maybe he's an amalgamation of Raymond Carver and David James Duncan and a guy I had a huge crush on in my twenties. As far as I can tell, Willy Vlautin is the embodiment of this literary archetype, the moody writer of my dreams.

I wouldn't be so enamored of Willy Vlautin if his novel Lean on Pete wasn't so incredibly good. My friend Craig gave it to me, and told me to pass it on when I finished it, and it is now my mission to get that book to as many people as possible. Let me know if you want to be the next one to read it... I just discovered that it is also the subject of the Multnomah County Library's Pageturners monthly book discussion groups. Willy himself has been participating in these discussion groups at branch libraries for months. Unfortunately I can't make it to either of the remaining ones. Damn.

Lean on Pete is set partly in Portland, and of course it's always more fun to read books that are set in familiar locations. It's the story of Charley, a fifteen-year-old whose life is spiraling into a pit of deprivation and loneliness. As his situation becomes more difficult, Charley shines with a grubby glow. The story is told on the fine edge between brutality and hope; despite the injustice and sorrow that pervade his life, Charley doggedly pursues his plan of tracking down his long-lost aunt. That he is doing it in spite of the adults he encounters seems unsurprising to him.

As a parent, I am often party to conversations about how resilient children are, and how much more self-sufficient than we give them credit for. This book reminds me that children hide a lot of anxiety and pain as they strive to live up to expectations. Charley proves to be very adept at making his way alone in the world, but the reader is left wishing that he didn't have to.

Vlautin's writing style is lovely. Spare, clean, unsentimental. This is one of the best books I've read this year, and I heartily wish that I still had the experience of reading it ahead of me.

Here is an interview from It's a few years old, but is my answer to "why do you want to be Willy Vlautin?"

And here is a Powell's question and answer that makes me like him even more.