Book Reviews

Willy Vlautin

Harper Perennial

It seemed the closer he was to what he wanted the more lost he became. The sinking feeling that had plagued him his entire life wasn’t going away. It was getting worse…Mr. Reese had told him that life, at its core, was a cruel burden because we had the knowledge that we were born to die. We were born with innocent eyes and those eyes had to see pain and death and deceit and violence and heartache. If we were lucky we lived long enough to see most everything we love die. But, he said, being honorable and truthful took a little of the sting out of it. It made life bearable.

                     from Don't Skip Out on Me

 


A Tale of the Modern West

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When Scappoose, Oregon author, singer and songwriter Willy Vlautin brought out Lean on Pete in 2010, fellow writer Ned Piper enthusiastically recommended it to me. But I was reluctant. It was supposedly about horse racing, much of the early action set at Portland Meadows, and I had absolutely no interest in horse racing. Zilch.

Nonetheless, trusting Ned’s judgment, I gave it a read. And I loved it. Powerful, sad, tender and wrenching, it was one of my favorite books of that year. (It also won two Oregon Book Awards: The Ken Kesey Award for Fiction and the People’s Choice Award.) So, when Ned told me that Vlautin had a new novel about championship boxing, I was sold—though I have even less interest in boxing than horse racing. (Less than zilch?)

Horace Hopper is a young man of Paiute and Irish ancestry. Abandoned as a child by his parents, he was raised on a sheep ranch in Nevada belonging to Mr. and Mrs. Reese, who took him in and consider him a son. As they now are getting up in years, they hoped that Horace would take over the ranch. But he has a hunger. And a dream to fill it. Something is missing inside him, so he sets out on his own hero’s journey to find it.

He travels to Tucson where he re-invents himself as Hector Hidalgo, a hard-hitting Mexican boxer aspiring to become a champion. Not only is he not Mexican, he can’t even speak Spanish, and tries faking a Mexican accent. As the Reeses patiently wait on the ranch, hoping that Horace will someday return and settle down, the young boxer continues battling for his dream and to fill his hunger.

Vlautin writes of the modern West, stripped of its mythology, in lean, spare prose, capturing the gritty side of life and of hard scrabble lives. As he did with horse racing, he shows us the seamy side of the championship boxing circuit, with its scurrilous promoters, burnt out boxers, and has-been coaches. He has a kindred sensitivity and sympathy for those who are battered and beat down by life yet who maintain a quiet, unpretentious dignity. Comparisons to Steinbeck are unavoidable.

The hero’s journey offers no guarantee one will return in triumph. Or even that one will return—probably why few people ever attempt the journey is the first place. For the one who does return, there is only the guarantee that he or she will come back scarred, battered and bruised, and a hero.

 


This review first appeared in The Columbia River Reader (October 15-November 24, 2018.) Reprinted with permission.


 

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