Book of the Week: The Free – Willy Vlautin

This trade paperback original is February’s #1 Indie Next Pick. Over the course of four strong, compassionate novels Vlautin, also the front man for the band Richmond Fontaine, has gotten better and better. The Free is his best book yet. I read it four months ago and the characters are still haunting and vivid inside me.

Vlautin’s #1 pick points to his legion of fans. They include not only booksellers but authors as varied as Jonathan Evison, Patrick deWitt, George Pelecanos, Cheryl Strayed and Ann Patchett. And the final cut on the Drive by Truckers new album is inspired by the character Pauline Hawkins in the book. In a Rolling Stone article (with clip of the song) Patterson Hood explains:

I had loved his first three novels and we had become pen pals in the last couple of years….The new book was called The Free and I read it in about three sittings. Wonderful book…. I finished the book on Saturday and wrote the song on Sunday.”

So what’s the book about? I just spent about twenty minutes writing a couple paragraphs only to run across this comment by Ursula Le Guin which explains Willy’s appeal with eloquent clarity:

Willy Vlautin is one of the bravest novelists writing. Murderers, cheats, sadists, showy examples of the banality of evil, are easy, but it takes real courage to write a novel about ordinary good people. They don’t fit into the cynic’s little boxes — they’re way too big. The guy working two eight-hour jobs who still can’t meet the mortgage but won’t let his kids down, the hospital night nurse coping with her crazy mean father and trying to rescue a lost girl–common people, the ones who never get the breaks, the ones who need, and know, compassion. An unsentimental Steinbeck, a heartbroken Haruf, Willy Vlautin tells us who really lives now in our America, our city in ruins.”

“The broken, the poor and the desperate fill this book–with dignity. This is a story of our times–about the lack of work, the cost of health insurance, the demonizing of war and the damage to life in the working class. Vlautin writes cleanly, beautifully about the people who hang on despite odds. This is a fine novel…bounded by courage and kindliness.”
— Kirkus Reviews

“Willy Vlautin’s incomparable novels celebrate the underdog: characters who make it in spite of impossible odds against them.  His writing lends beauty and nobility to depictions of people on the edge of things, people for whom getting through the everyday details of life is a kind of triumph.  In The Free, characters who can barely care for themselves spend their lives caring for others.  Heartfelt and captivating!”
— Carol Schneck Varner, Schuler Books & Music, Okemos, MI

“In The Free, Willy Vlautin gives us a portrait of American life that is so hard and so heartbreaking that it should be unbearable, but it isn’t. The straightforward beauty of Vlautin’s writing, and the tender care he shows his characters, turns a story of struggle into indispensable reading. I couldn’t recommend it more highly.”
— Ann Patchett

The Free (9780062276742) by Willy Vlautin. $14.99 trade paper original. 2/4/14 on sale.

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