Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Trying something new

By Tracy

Last week I heard novelist and musician Willy Vlautin talking on the radio from the Sydney Writers' Festival, and decided to try one of his books.

I wanted to partly because I get tired of novels limited to privileged or middle-class characters, and he's more interested in what reviewers keep calling "the dispossessed".

He's published three novels -- Planet Books only had two of them. I wasn't that interested in the new one, Lean on Pete, because of the horse-racing motif, so instead I chose his second, Northline (Faber and Faber, 2008).

It's a fast read. At first I found it quite annoying -- too much dialogue, phrasing too staccato for me, and the sense that the so-called "low-life" aspect is self-consciously on display for the reader. I couldn't tell if it was simply over-edited, stylistically, or if it was running on the assumption that people can only read very, very pared-back flat language. Some great writers of course have used a simple approach to style, but here it's frequently clunky, stilted.

Yet I kept reading, and it grew on me a little: there's a strong sense of compassion in the novel, and although it veers into being too sentimental (the Paul Newman fantasy-sequences, for one), it does leave you with a distinct feeling of atmosphere and some memorable characters.

Not the protagonist, however -- Allison -- who seems, perhaps intentionally, little more than an outline. It's the people who befriend her on her desperate downer -- like Penny, who trains her in phone sales, and Dan, a trauma survivor -- that seem vivid and durable creations.

The story is set in Las Vegas and Reno, among the drinkers, gamblers and workers of those places (Vlautin comes from Reno, according to the radio interview, though he now lives in Oregon).

He's singer-songwriter with the band Richmond-Fontaine, and there's a soundtrack for the book too.

All in all a bit disappointing -- certainly not the new Steinbeck or Carver that publicity led me to expect -- but still not a bad read.

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