Willy Vlautin reads from Don’t Skip Out On Me at Shakespeare & Co. Wed., March 14, at 7 PM.
It requires skill for artists to mix sadness, loneliness and despair with equal measures of humor and compassion, and arrive at something beautiful. When anyone — whether novelist, musician or filmmaker — pulls it off, even the melancholy in a work can be strangely uplifting. Oregon writer Willy Vlautin is quietly making a career in mastering this kind of storytelling. The truth is evident in Don’t Skip Out On Me, his fifth and latest novel.
Vlautin first began telling stories through songs. He played music as a teenager growing up in Reno, Nevada. In 1994, he founded the Portland-based band Richmond Fontaine, his raw, delicate voice a perfect vehicle for sharing the lives of the lovelorn and disenfranchised people who inhabited the world around him. He published his first novel, The Motel Life, in 2006. In interviews, Vlautin has said his books were born as a result of certain characters from his songs capturing his attention so deeply that he had to expand on their lives with prose.
Don’t Skip Out On Me focuses on two men. There’s 21-year-old Horace Hopper who works on a sheep ranch in Nevada and wants to become a boxing champion. He is half-Indian (the product of a Paiute father and an Irish mother), small and slight, with delicate features and long black hair. He is a hard worker, confident and gentle in handling livestock. We know this because when we first meet him he is taking horses and supplies up into the mountains to check on the pair of shepherds overseeing the sheep ranging there. The shepherds, cousins who barely speak English — or not at all — have had a falling out that Horace must correct. He handles the conflict with a calm, patience and compassion beyond his years.
Mr. Reese, the other main character, is the owner of the ranch where Horace works. He is an old man, and problems with his back have made it nearly impossible for him to manage the ranch on his own. He is also something of a father figure to Horace. He and his wife, Louise, took the young man in after he was abandoned by his mother.
Horace leaves Nevada for Tucson, Arizona, to begin his boxing career. He finds a job working at a used tire shop. At the Eleventh Street Gym, he meets with Alberto Ruiz, who reluctantly agrees to become his trainer. Horace changes his name to Hector Hidalgo because he wants people to think he is Mexican rather than Indian, because Mexicans have a better reputation for being gritty fighters. Horace/Hector has some success as an amateur, and quickly turns pro. Forced to navigate a world of shady boxing events, promoters and trainers, largely on his own, he struggles to find his way.
Meanwhile Mr. Reese is encountering difficulties of his own. He worries about Horace and wishes the young man would return to take over the ranch. Reese’s wife seems to battle chronic depression, which also complicates his life. Finally, he can’t find ranch help nearly as reliable and conscientious as Horace, and worries about his own ranching future. All the men of his generation have gotten out of the business, either through retirement or selling out. It isn’t a path Reese wants to take.
As Vlautin weaves his story, the lives of these two men are, for better or worse, irrevocably intertwined.
One sees names like John Steinbeck and Raymond Carver thrown around frequently when Willy Vlautin’s writing is discussed. Those aren’t inaccurate comparisons, but they are a disservice to Vlautin’s own distinct voice. He writes in similar spare, clean prose and features characters who would not be unrecognizable to either of the literary heavyweights mentioned, but Vlautin is doing his own thing. His people go about their lives relatively invisible and unnoticed to the rest of us, and he handles the telling of their stories with a depth and compassion that must be learned firsthand by living a similar life. And Vlautin has done that — scrabbling for musical gigs and working dead-end jobs while most writers his age were extending their academic careers. Tiny details, like the sharing of meals, reveal some of the multiple ways that people show their love for one another without actually saying so. Mr. Reese’s love and concern for the troubled Horace Hopper is beautiful: His struggle to rescue the young man is at odds with the idea that Horace must also be allowed to find his own way. Don’t Skip Out On Me is a poignant, sad and deeply moving book. I don’t expect to read a better novel this year.