Book Reviews

The Free – Willy Vlautin – Book Review

The Free Willy VlautinThe Free by Willy Vlautin – Review by Helen O’Leary

Willy Vlautin’s reputation as a novelist is slowly growing. His last book was short listed for the IMPAC Prize but he still remains better known for his musical endeavors. He is front man for the band Richmond Fountaine. Vlautin had been writing since he was a teenager, a chance encounter with an agent at a gig in London resulted in his first publication. The Free is his fourth novel and is built around the lives of three main characters in a small American town.

Leroy is a young man who sustained a major brain trauma serving in the Iraq war and now resides in an institution for disabled men. As a consequence of his head injury Leroy’s mind is a permanent fog with no clarity of thought. One day, momentarily the fog clears and he can assess his situation. Knowing he has no chance of a miraculous recovery, Leroy uses this brief window of lucidity to try to escape his entrapment and attempts suicide. The result is horrific injuries and Leroy is back in hospital with a broken body and a mind in silent hysterics. At the hospital Freddie the night watchman from his residential home visits him.

Freddie is divorced and lives alone. He works two jobs, barely sleeps and is smothering beneath a burden of debt from medical bills. The stress and emotional turmoil is taking its toll. Like many others, when the economy took a dive, Freddie found himself at the bottom of the heap. He is manipulated by his employer and ex wife but it’s not in Freddie’s nature to revolt. His salvation can only come from the kindness of others around him.

Pauline is a nurse in the local hospital and the third character whose life we peer into. She encounters both Freddie and Leroy in the hospital. Like the other she lives a very ordinary life but has been wounded by unhappy relationships. You might think this all sounds rather bleak and admittedly there is a pervading sense of despair and but salvation and hope comes in small acts of compassion and humanity shown by others.

In this novel Vlautin boldly tackles some thorny American issues. A healthcare system that shackles rather than serves its people, the senseless waste of young life in the Iraq war, the struggle of people on the bottom rung of society who turn to drugs, alcohol or food for comfort. Just as Vlautin’s hero John Steinbeck wrote about the social problems of 1930’s America, Vlautin does likewise but in modern day America, where life can be just as difficult and desolate.

Although a potentially great book it is not without it’s flaws. The story is broken up with passages of dream sequences reflecting what is happening in the mind of Leroy. Necessary perhaps, because the unconscious Leroy is himself incapable of any action, these passages are at times excessively lengthy. They don’t strengthen the novel or enhance its impact.

Vlautin deserves praise for tackling many difficult themes but possibly he was over ambitious in trying to tackle too many. The novel suffers slightly for this. He has created three strong and compelling characters but he doesn’t expand them to their full potential.

The writing is clear and without excessive emotion yet the novel still manages to be full of empathy and compassion. Vlautin deliberately portrays the lives of ordinary Americans none of whom are noticeably brilliant or remarkable- at first. Yet as you read you get to know them, and want to understand them and that’s where Vlautin’s skill as a storyteller lies.

The Free by Willy Vlautin is published by Harper Collins.

Willy Vlautin

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