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Lean On Pete, By Willy Vlautin
Thursday 04 February 2010
Over the course of three novels, and many albums with his band, Richmond Fontaine, Willy Vlautin has mapped out his own territory. It's a version of the American West in which the principal cities are the gambling town of Reno, Nevada and the steel town of Portland, Oregon. Vlautin's version is about as far from the tourist brochures as you can get. He unearths a world Steinbeck would have recognised: a place of flophouse motels and fading racetracks, where the American underclass still resides.
Vlautin's previous novels both featured protagonists in young adulthood, trying to escape from foolish mistakes. In Lean On Pete his hero, Charley Thompson, is younger still; just 15, and this time struggling to escape from the grave errors of his absent mother and barely present father. Charley and his father have pitched up in Portland; all Charley wants is to stay in one place long enough to finish school and play college football. But his father's roustabout life doesn't allow for such stability.
He gets a job in the steel mills and starts staying out for weeks, bringing back the type of women who are never going to be a mother to Charley. Charley resorts to stealing food to survive, and hanging out at the local racetrack, where an alcoholic trainer called Del uses him as cheap labour. Charley accompanies his new mentor on some wonderfully well-evoked expeditions to down-at-heel racetracks. When things at home go from bad to worse, he ends up sleeping in the stable alongside his favourite horse, Lean On Pete. To avoid the knacker's yard, boy and horse run off on a journey across the West in search of the one person who ever looked out for Charley, his aunt Margy.
Lean On Pete is an archetypal American novel, Huck Finn for the crystal-meth generation. If there's the occasional touch of sentimentality, it's hard-earned and welcome. This is a sad, often brutal, but oddly beautiful portrait of an America that's forgotten only because we choose not to remember its continuing existence.
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