Don’t Skip Out On Me

Willy Vlautin

Faber £14.99

Review by Hugh MacDonald

THE considerable constituency containing those who have never heard of Willy Vlautin is to shrink. The American author, musician and songwriter is about to become as conspicuous as a Donald Trump tweet if considerably less vacuous.

The fates have conspired to make 2018 the year of Vlautin. The film of his novel, Lean On Pete, is to be released, and Don’t Skip Out On Me is being supported energetically by his publishers with backing vocals from authors such as Colm Toibin, Donna Tartt and Roddy Doyle offering praise on the cover. Vlautin’s back catalogue with Richmond Fontaine, his former band, and his current adventures with The Delines will also attract attention.

This is all to the good. Vlautin is a talent, though Don’t Skip Out On Me shows its limits as well as its scope. His writing of prose largely complements his songwriting. In Richmond Fontaine, Vlautin was at his best when composing "story songs", most notably in Post To Wire.

The transition to novels, then, has been largely smooth, but Vlautin’s writing, undoubtedly lean, can lack depth over 300 pages. His latest is carried by two strong characters: Mr Reese, a rancher, and Horace Hopper, a hired hand who dreams of being a boxer.

In contrast to Trump and his tweets, Vlautin seeks not to make America great again, but to divine what made it great in the first place. He retreats to the elemental arenas of a Nevada sheep farm and the boxing ring.

Mr Reese inhabits the first world with a gentle compassion. Horace stalks the latter with a desperation that fuels heavy punching but invites calamitous punishment.

There is much sentiment in the story and a power that gathers awful momentum. Vlautin, too, is adept at showing the deliberation of Mr Reese and the motivation of Horace, a disillusioned Paiute Indian who wants to be a Mexican, at least in terms of finding an identity in the ring.

The landscape is wonderfully recreated with a crumbling USA placed almost in the centre of a boundless nature. This is a land where reaching a shepherd can take a couple of days, where the nearest town is 60 miles away.

This isolation offers both solace and distinct danger. A shepherd breaks down and self-harms, a rancher’s wife shuns the outside world for domestic depression, Horace ventures out recklessly.

Mr Reese is the anchor but he, too, knows his world is changing and accepts he has to change. He seeks to help others accommodate this reality. He is a figure of genuine goodness yet one who has authenticity.

The minor gripe with Don’t Skip Out On Me is that other characters are lost in the shadows. Horace, a mass of insecurities and genuine bravery, manages to punch his weight but others are left largely on the sidelines.

The novel, though, has an affecting quality. Its characters and message remain after reading, with one fated to hum unwittingly Vlautin’s melody of the power of goodness amid the harshness of life. Musician or author, Vlautin is worth getting to know.