Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Summer Reading Recommendation 3: 'Lean on Pete'

Willy Vlautin's latest novel, Lean on Pete, is a heart-breaker. The story is told by Charley Thompson, a 15 year-old boy who moves to Portland, Oregon with his father. Left alone to fend for himself, he becomes drawn to the Portland Meadows racetrack, a seedy venue for hopeless horses and even more hopeless jockeys and trainers. One of these is Del, who Charley starts to work for.

The book breaks your heart largely because of the narrative voice. Charley is no smart-ass Holden Caulfield, instead telling his story in the most plain manner, withholding his feelings as much as possible (except in the exceptional moments when he tells us he cried or was lonely). Vlautin has said: 'So his narration doesn't have music to it, it's closed and simple and strict because if he lets it out, he'll fall apart. He's hanging on just barely.' And Hannah Tinti's sentence in the blurb is right: 'Reading Willy Vlautin is like jumping into a clear, cold lake in the middle of summer.' There's no foreshadowing in this prose style: the most awful events come out of nowhere.

Charley's story is desperate. He comes to depend on the eponymous horse of the title, and eventually sets off to find a long-lost aunt, the only person who might save him. You might keep in mind Steinbeck's epigraph to the book : 'It is true that we are weak and sick and ugly and quarrelsome but if that is all we ever were, we would millenniums ago have disappeared from the face of the earth.'

It is an outstanding novel, being beautifully paced and restrained. It evokes the dismaying backdrop powerfully, and almost every character (some just briefly glimpsed) is captured memorably.

Read more reviews here from RTE and the Independent, and see Vlautin's recommended soundtrack on Largeheartedboy. Below, the Faber trailer.

Lean on Pete book trailer - Willy Vlautin from FaberBooks on Vimeo.

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