Review – The Free by Willy Vlautin
by Jon Page - March 17th, 2014
I have always meant to read Willy Vlautin. My old sales rep practically begged me for years to read him (I still have two books in my to read pile). One of my favourite authors, George Pelecanos, ranks him as one of his favourite writers (which should have been enough for me). But what finally got to me read Willy Vlautin was the Ann Patchett quote (alongs side a Pelecanos) quote on the front of his new novel, because quite frankly Ann Patchett has done me no wrong lately.
This is not a war novel but it does deal with the aftereffects of war. It is not a political novel but it does look at health care in America. It is a novel about the wounded. Those wounded by what life throws at them and what they do with those wounds. It is a dazzling original novel, profound and full of hope. And it will stay with you long after you finish reading it.
The Free reminded me of two things. The first was one of the best books I’ve read about war, Going After Cacciato by Tim O’Brien. O’Brien is best known for his Vietnam War novel The Things They Carried. Going After Cacciato was very different. It was experimental, it played with the boundaries of reality and went to that place inside a soldier’s head where he tries to hide from the horrors of war. Willy Vlautin takes this even further with the character of Leroy Kervin.
Leroy is a wounded veteran of Iraq. He has suffered a horrific brain injury and has spent years in a home for the disabled, barely functional. As the book opens Leroy has a moment of clarity and tries to take his own life. We then follow Leroy as he dips in and out of consciousness and into the dream world he creates to escape to somewhere better, to come to terms to what has happened to him.
Around these dreams we meet the people around Leroy; his mother who sits by his bedside reading science fiction novels to him, his girlfriend Jeanette who is also a huge part of Leroy’s dreamscape. Leroy’s dream world reminded me a lot of George Saunders’ short stories. Influenced by the books Leroy used to read, and now listens to, his dreams take on a slight science fiction bend. But as hard as Leroy tries he can’t out run his own consciousness and he wounds and memories creep into his dreams.
We also follow Pauline, the nurse who cares for Leroy in the hospital and Freddy, the caretaker at the home who found Leroy. These are the other wounded, the ones who soldier on. Who bare the brunt of a hard and uncompromising world. Freddy is drowning in debt trying to pay off a huge hospital bill. He works two jobs and as a consequence his wife and kids have left him. Pauline looks after her mentally ill father while at the same time trying to care for her patients at the hospital. But both Pauline and Leroy find hope in their lives and this drives them toward something better.
Willy Vlautin is an amazing writer who I should have read long before now and I can’t wait to get stuck into his previous books I have sitting in my pile.