Redemption. A couple of months ago, I panned a book by Jaimy Gordon called “Lord of Misrule.” Gordon wrote about one of my favorite places, the racetrack, and I felt the characters were awkwardly stationed, the story was not believable, and the writing style, though impressive, was really just an English professor attempting working class linguistics.
Enter “Lean on Pete,” by Willy Vlautin, an Oregon based author, who has written a book with just the right kind of approach to a racetrack novel. I adored this book. I’m going to have a hard time keeping a focus because I just liked this book so much, and I’m afraid I’ll have a tendency to just rave. The main character, Charley, is a 15 year old who through no fault of his own lives a hard life. His father “raises” him and unexpectedly whisks him away to Portland, Oregon. While there, Charley, looking to find his way, winds up working for Del, a perfect racetrack character, and learns more about the hard life. Charley’s father is then murdered, and Charley must attempt a cross-country trip to find his estranged Aunt. Along the way, Charlie encounters several memorable characters who give us glimpses into the lives of the working poor in the Northwest. Charley also steals Del’s horse, the namesake of the novel, who becomes his companion on the journey to Wyoming.
Charley was completely believable as a character. It helped that Vlautin wrote the book first person and used the voice of a fifteen year old. Everything is in plain language—very few literary devices—and in between the simple statements, you can almost hear Charley, the lost soul, processing the very adult things he is seeing. I’m not kidding you, I could feel the cold when Charley had to sleep outside, and I was hungry when the kid was starving. When he was darting through Fred Meyers and Safeways and convenience stores stealing food, I had adrenaline spikes. This is the mark of an excellent writer. Near the end, Charley is hitchhiking. This is what he sees:
“His truck was as beat up on the inside as the outside. Everything had duct tape on it and there was no stereo or anything on the dash but the speedometer. The man had long sandy blond hair and wore a stained white T-shirt and cut-offs. He was smoking cigarettes that he rolled himself while he drove. He said his name was Dan.”
Simple, but perfectly descriptive. Like the entire novel.
And as far as the location goes, I’ve only spent a minimal amount of time in the Northwest, but I felt like Vlautin captured the greyness of the Northwest—not just explicitly, but through the tone and mood of the book. I could imagine reading this on a rainy day in a coffeshop in the Pearl. (Incidentally, I bought this book at Powell’s in Portland, Oregon. There are a few more PNW themed books in your future if you read this blog regularly.)
The racetrack was important to the story, as was the horse, but neither were awarded mystical status like they were in “Lord of Misrule.” Portland Meadows was ordinary and downtrodden, like so many American tracks. So were the jockeys, trainers, and other personnel. The track became Charley’s homeless shelter. Lean on Pete, the horse, was a great character. He wins a few, loses a few, and is no different than so many other journeyman horses. Lean on Pete—the perfect name for the crutch that he becomes—is there as a temporary companion for Charley. A beautiful, and oh so sad, companionship.
“Lean on Pete” is a dark and tragic book. Even the parts where Charley encounters goodness are sobering. After a generous family feeds him dinner, Charley says, “When I left there I was pretty down. I never understand why seeing something nice can get you so down but it can.” At fifteen, he doesn’t quite understand what he’s feeling, but the reader does, and it’s heartbreaking, because we’ve all felt that emotion.
I can’t resist this either. On the cover of the book is a quote from Hannah Tinti, an author who offers this about Vlautin: “Reading Willy Vlautin is like jumping into a clear, cold lake in the middle of summer. His prose is beautifully spare and clean, but underneath the surface lies an incredible depth, with all kinds of hidden stories and emotions resting in the shadows.” I think it is tacky to put a blurb on the cover of the book—probably suggested by some cheeky marketing person at a publishing house and unfortunately it ends up making the author look too self-promotional—but, honestly, Tinti nails it with this one. Her description is exactly what reading “Lean on Pete” is like. “A clear, cold lake.”
So, redemption. “Lean on Pete” is a magnificent novel about the dusty and dusky life at a racetrack, about a boy who too soon must become a man, and about what the world looks like when you’ve been abandoned by everyone. I know it sounds like a downer, but like I said earlier, I just can’t say enough good things about this book. I hope you check it out.
Thanks for reading.