We hear a lot about American extremes, whether it’s gossip about the extremely wealthy, or reports of violence among the extremely disaffected. But what of those who will never be successful, but are neither on the rampage nor quite on the skids? For that, we once relied on Joe Bageant; but since his untimely death a couple of years ago we have needed to look elsewhere.
One serious contender is Willy Vlautin. Vlautin, who has worked in warehouses and at painting houses, is also a gifted and elegant writer. He writes essays and novels and, as songwriter and vocalist for Richmond Fontaine, songs; and he has just released a novel about ordinary people in the mess that is America.
The Free opens when Leroy, an Iraqi veteran suffering brain injury and posttraumatic stress disorder, wakes in the night. To his astonishment, he is having a rare moment of clarity. It has been so long since he has experienced this, and he is so profoundly grateful for the gift and the beauty he perceives, that he cannot bear to descend again into darkness and confusion. He decides to liberate himself, and attempts suicide. This is a framing device for the character-driven novel which goes on to describe small, good things (as Raymond Carver once put it) done by small, good people who are themselves on the brink of collapse.
Leroy lives in a home for servicemen with acquired brain injuries, and Freddie, the nightwatchman, finds him. Freddie tends his wounds, calls the ambulance and Leroy’s mother, and gently helps the other servicemen back to bed. As the story progresses we learn that Freddie is crippled by medical bills. He works in a paint store by day and in the group home by night; even so, his house is twice mortgaged and his power is about to be cut off. Despite these pressures, he finds kind words for the counterwoman at the donut shop each morning, and drops by the hospital between workplaces each evening to sit with Leroy and leave small gifts on his nightstand.
Coming in and out of Leroy’s room is Pauline, a nurse. Pauline becomes particularly attached to one patient, a young teenage runaway; and she also cares for her mentally ill father who spends his days on the couch watching TV. We also meet Leroy’s mother and ex-girlfriend, and numerous other minor characters.
Their interwoven stories are studded by Leroy’s PTSD-driven nightmares. In his mind, Leroy and his ex-girlfriend are on the run from the super race. Having been marked as cowards, they are being hunted down for slaughter. Images of war – hangings, shootings, bloodbaths – pepper his visions, which gradually reveal his self-understanding as someone who is unable to integrate his experience of war and is permanently damaged as a result.
It is difficult to write about decent people without mawkishness or naïveté, but Vlautin manages it with rare grace. These are no saints, just people getting by – but choosing to get by as well as they can, given their crushing circumstances. His spare style recalls Carver’s lean prose, spliced with Leroy’s Orwellian dystopic dreams.
Although it is a story about individuals, The Free also illuminates the toxic effects of untrammelled capitalism. Leroy joins the National Guard to impress his boss and keep his job, not knowing it could lead to overseas service. Freddie is bankrupted by private healthcare and criminally low wages. Although he flirts with potentially lucrative illegal work, the timing of other events means he is still shunted into sub-standard housing. Pauline’s father lives in cold filth for fear of heating and water bills. Others live on the streets or in squats, or get involved in endeavours that lead to prison. The Free touches on these and many other issues as it describes life in the corporatocracy and ponders where people on the margins find freedom. And while Vlautin has no paradigm-shattering answers, he does offer small and precious glimpses of grace.