FEBRUARY 26, 2014
IT’S EASY TO MISS the dedication of Willy Vlautin’s beautiful and haunting fourth novel, The Free, buried as it is on the copyright page: For the patron saint of nurses, Camillus de Lellis. It’s a telling dedication, one that stresses Vlautin’s concern with maintaining hope in the face of unbelievable odds. In a recent interview with Irish radio, Vlautin referred to the book as a “distress call to the patron saint of nurses,” saying he wanted his characters to be remembered and taken care of by Saint Camillus. He said what appealed to him about saints was that they were just regular people who did extraordinary things. He also called the book a tribute to nurses, who fit that bill perfectly as well. The Free, then, is a book about reconciliation and kindness and charity; it’s about remaining honest when everything is trying to pull you in the other direction.
Vlautin’s characters aren’t sad sacks, but they are struggling to get by in a world that keeps beating them down. This is the most sprawling of his books, with many moving parts. His previous novels — The Motel Life, Northline, and Lean On Pete — focus intensely on their leads; here, however, we have several main characters, all in moments of crisis, spiraling around one another in a beautifully choreographed dance of desperation and resilience.
Leroy Kervin, the novel’s uniting force, suffers from a brain injury he received when a roadside bomb destroyed the vehicle he was in during the Iraq War. When we first meet him, in a moment of rare clarity at the group home where’s been staying, a fed-up Leroy tries to kill himself by placing a wooden gate at the bottom of a staircase and plunging into it. The night man at the home, Freddie McCall, is awakened by Leroy’s primitive suicide attempt and comes to his aid. Freddie works days at the same paint shop he’s worked in since high school. His wife has split on him and taken their daughters to Las Vegas, leaving him with medical bills he can’t afford (one of his daughters has a congenital birth defect) and a house he’s on the verge of losing. Pauline Hawkins is Leroy’s nurse at the hospital where he’s brought after the suicide attempt. Her life is also one of quiet sorrows. She works, takes care of her stubborn father, longs for a job as a school nurse, and refuses to depend on anyone other than herself. Her pet rabbit, Donna, was left behind by a previous tenant in her apartment building, and the landlord brought it to Pauline because he “knows [she’s] a sucker.” Discovering this, a patient named Mr. Flory says, “Maybe he just thought you were kind.” And she is kind. She tends to Leroy and her other patients with gentleness and humor. One of her newest patients, a young runaway named Jo, has abscessed legs from heroin abuse and has fallen in with gutter punks who haunt her bedside. In seeking to help Jo, Pauline reveals the great goodness that drives her. We also meet Darla, Leroy’s mother, who works at a grocery store, reads sci-fi novels to her comatose son, and occasionally interacts with Freddie and Pauline. Leroy’s old girlfriend, Jeanette, shows up in the novel’s most ambitious thread: a sort of dystopian fantasy that finds Leroy and Jeanette bonding over the Portuguese singer Amália Rodrigues and evading capture by a group called The Free, who hunt Americans afflicted with a green mark that identifies them as weak. It’s a nightmare dream world, one where Leroy and Jeanette are deeply in love yet caught in a cycle of being wounded and cornered by soldiers. There are no rules, except that everything, even their own history as a couple, is fluid and shifting. The alternate universe seems totally plausible; in fact, there’s overlap between what’s happening to Leroy and Jeanette and what’s happening to Freddie and Pauline in their daily struggles.
Vlautin is a writer with incredible heart, and The Free is his best achievement yet, a profound look at characters living on the margins, honest people who have been hit hard by the dark realities of a difficult world. But this is no moral tale. Vlautin doesn’t preach a gospel of the misbegotten, though he does have a very spiritual sense of kindness and compassion. What he does — so marvelously and with such poise — is give us quiet, seemingly banal moments that strike hard with meaning. No writer I’ve ever read can do this quite like Vlautin. No exaggeration. His sentences may not pack the immediate wallop of his hero Raymond Carver’s, but they’re raw and perfect, and there’s even more emotion under the surface. One of the reasons I often find it difficult to write about Vlautin’s work is because I take it so personally. These aren’t characters to me; they’re flesh-and-blood humans that I love and worry about. Take, for instance, a moment in the middle of the book that finds Pauline “trying to hold a cup of coffee and eat a piece of chocolate cake and walk at the same time.” Coming to a staircase, she balances “the plate of cake on top of the cup of coffee” and trudges along. The scene doesn’t call attention to itself, but I found myself weeping as I imagined Pauline with her cake and coffee. It struck me as such a human moment, the kind of thing that is not important to the plot and yet contains a world of tension and desperation and loneliness.
The Free is built on these sorts of small moments. When Freddie gives his toy train collection to a friend and fellow collector named Terrance, it’s a heartbreaking scene that could have verged on schmaltzy. But Vlautin handles it with his signature grace. We feel Freddie’s pain more than we see it. He is on the ropes financially but he won’t sell the trains. He wants to give them to someone who will appreciate them, care for them. When Terrance offers him a loan to help with the hospital bills, Freddie refuses. Like Pauline, he doesn’t want to owe anyone anything. He’s an honest guy who refuses to give in, representative of a certain kind of working class American that may be fading from existence. His boss at the paint store is Pat, who comes in for two hours a day with a liter of soda and a microwave lunch and listens to religious programming. He’s spoiled and lazy. He drives a brand new Ford F250 pickup but can’t afford to give Freddie a raise. Pat’s dad, Enoch, wanted to leave the store to Freddie, but the family wouldn’t let it happen that way. And so Freddie’s trapped, doing the only thing he’s ever done, keeping the store alive, getting nothing in return. His workaday routine is taxing even on us. He times himself in the shower between jobs, takes short naps, pounds energy drinks and coffee to keep awake. He talks to his daughters in Las Vegas, but they have nothing to say to him. He writes down questions to ask them so he doesn’t blank. How much can he take before he snaps? Vlautin seems to be asking.
And this is another great quality Vlautin has: he refuses to punish his characters. Though the Flannigan Brothers in The Motel Life, Allison Johnson in Northline, and Charley Thompson in Lean On Pete are put through the wringer based on bad decisions they’ve made, they’re never dragged through the mud unnecessarily. The same is true here. Both Freddie and Pauline must do things that they don’t want to do in order to survive, but nothing bad happens to them for the sake of drama. When Freddie allows his friend Lowell to put pot plants in his basement to make some extra money, we feel an overwhelming sense of dread. In a lesser writer’s hands, we know exactly what’s coming next: Freddie getting pinched, going to jail, totally shattered. You simply shouldn’t expect things like that from Vlautin. Nothing is easy or predictable. He’s much more careful than that. He has an unbelievable sense of the private wars that people fight, and he treats his characters with dignity. He wants to see them succeed and thrive.
Vlautin also takes risks. In The Motel Life, we disappeared inside the stories that Frank told his brother Jerry Lee. In Northline, Paul Newman served as a sort of guardian angel to Allison, urging her to get up and keep fighting. These are devices that could have slingshot readers straight out of the narrative and come off as hokey, but Vlautin is so tender with them, such a loving creator, that you can’t imagine things any other way. The Leroy/Jeanette thread in The Free also threatens to wrench us away from Vlautin’s straightforward world of heartbreaks and near-misses; instead, it plays out as a unique and fully engaging love story, spare and quietly innovative like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. It’s a canvas upon which to explore the novel’s concerns with freedom, as well. Leroy, living in a dream, is trying to be free of the real world, which has kept him prisoner for so many years. Meanwhile, in the fantasy, Leroy and Jeanette are treated as “green loaders,” their very freedom questioned by The Free, who kill innocents in the name of protecting the country. The militant nutjobs from The Free represent the kind of people who define freedom for us daily. (The novel hints at America’s current troubles without naming them, which is a credit to Vlautin.) Leroy also wants freedom for Jeanette: freedom from him, freedom from her memory of them being together. Darla, back in the real world, tries to protect Jeanette similarly: “And if I tell her what’s happened now, she’ll just come here and spend all day and night with him and ruin her life again. I wish she’d just get married and have kids. She’d be free from it then.”
But part of the awfulness of freedom is that there are things humans can never be free from. Death. Sickness. Struggle. Loneliness. This is the question that drives Vlautin and his characters: how do you keep going in the face of all that? And the answer, ultimately, is simple. Kindness and gratitude. Near the end of the book, Freddie makes a long trip to pick up his girls in his battered Comet, and the car finally gives up. When the girls lean toward panic, Freddie says: “[The Comet] is old, but she made it to you guys. That’s the main thing. That’s why she’s the best car ever. She waited until we were together to get sick. Anyway, she’ll be alright. She tried as hard as she could and now she’s tired.”
Whatever Vlautin breaks down in you, he builds back up. Walking away from The Free, I felt a renewed sense of humanity and hope. For someone prone to melancholy as I am, Vlautin’s books are a balm, a salve. They make me want to be a better person. They say keep fighting, keep loving, don’t give up. It’s easy to get hammered down by the world, to let the haves take over so completely that we all blur into a smudge of defeat. True freedom comes with accepting your responsibilities and finding your purpose, and Vlautin is the patron saint of the damaged underdog. In my estimation, no writer is doing more important work.