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Northline, by Willy Vlautin

A sporting chance for losers

The history of musicians writing novels is not auspicious. Bob Dylan's ridiculous Tarantula springs to mind, as does Richrd Hell's junkie ramble Go Now.

Northline is the second novel by Willy Vlautin, leader of alt.country ensemble Richmond Fontaine. What singles him out is that his songwriting and literary voices are almost exactly the same. His songs are pared-down stories dealing mostly with the broken-down inhabitants of his hometown: Reno. Vlautin's first novel, The Motel Life, also had two brothers living in a Reno motel.

Northline is an honest, compassionate story that deals, with grace and respect, with the lives of American losers. Allison Johnson, a pregnant 22-year-old from Las Vegas, is handicapped by a drink problem, a lack of education and a swastika tattooed on her back, courtesy of her white-supremacist boyfriend. In some ways, it's an archetypal tale: a poor girl stumbling towards the light. What makes it exceptional is the vividness with which Vlautin colours her world and his skill in plotting her journey. In Reno, her fortunes begin to change: its human scale offers her the promise of redemption.

Vlautin is mining a lost seam of American writing that celebrates the dispossessed, beginning with Caldwell and Steinbeck, continuing with Algren and Fante. These are the great writers who stand behind his fiction, just as Hank Williams and Bruce Springsteen stand behind the music of Richmond Fontaine.

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