Reading a Willy Vlautin novel feels a lot like sitting in the bar talking with Willy Vlautin. And it feels a lot like listening to the songs he writes with his band, Richmond Fontaine. The author's previous two novels, The Motel Life and Northline, shared stories with a couple of Richmond Fontaine songs. So does his newest, Lean on Pete, but in this one Vlautin makes room for even more bad luck to plague his main character. In his books, though, bad luck always comes with good stories.
Charley is a 15-year-old kid who's just moved from Spokane to the outskirts of Portland with his dad, a freight worker who tends to disappear for days on end whenever he gets a new girlfriend, and who doesn't say much about why they had to up and leave Spokane. Charley was great at football at his old school, so he's basically killing time until tryouts start at the end of the summer. He eats constantly and goes running every chance he gets. One day his run takes him past a dilapidated old horse-racing track called Portland Meadows (where the author himself has been known to spend time writing, and where you imagine he found inspiration for a lot of Lean on Pete’s saltier characters). Charley ends up working for a guy named Del, a sleazy, two-bit trainer who's usually too drunk to remember how much or even if he paid the kid and too mean to pay him the rest of the time. But Charley gets attached to one of Del's racehorses, Lean on Pete, so he sticks around even when Del treats him (and Pete) badly. Then the worst bad luck hits, and Charley starts sleeping in the tackroom at the track, stealing food to get by. From here on out, things get worse in wildly unpredictable ways.
Like most of us do when we hit a long stretch of bad luck, Charley spends a lot of time thinking about where, exactly, it all started to go wrong. Unlike in Vlautin's previous two books, none of what happens here is really Charley's fault. He's a good kid, but the people around him constantly let him down. It's a story about how you manage when nothing goes your way, when you lose every bet and nobody helps you. People do help Charley, of course—if they didn't it wouldn't be a Willy Vlautin novel. And one of the great things about his writing is that you believe in the good guys just as much as the bad. You believe every bad thing that happens to Charley, but you also believe the whole time that things are going to turn out all right.
Becky Ohlsen writes from Portland, Oregon.
Watch a trailer for Lean on Pete