When Leroy Kervin was 24, a roadside bomb in Iraq parked him in a German hospital with fractures and a serious brain injury. Couldn’t talk. Couldn’t walk. Despite seven years of rehab and huge struggles to regain some of his normal functions, Leroy still suffers from acute PTSD, physical struggles, constant fear, and a fog-shrouded view of the world around him. So, when he wakes up one day miraculously clear-headed, and assumes that this respite is temporary, all he can think is that he will never return to the way things were. To make sure of that he decides to use this fleeting moment of personal reanimation to kill himself. Leroy’s decision brings together the main characters in Willy Vlautin’s look at what it is to be working class in 21st century America.
I write, or hope to write, stories about the working class. I’ve always been a fan of stories about working people, and normal people and the day-to-day struggles they go through. – from interview at 13E Note Editions
Freddie McCall was the night man at the long term care facility where Leroy was living. He is roused by the commotion of Leroy plunging down a staircase onto some wooden stakes. Freddie calls 911 and sees that Leroy is taken to a hospital.
…he held two kitchen towels over the main wound and stared at Leroy’s face. There was a two-inch cut on his cheek leaking blood, and a growing welt on his forehead. Freddie wanted to say something to comfort him, but every time he tried to speak he began to cry.
He’d always liked Leroy. For a man who couldn’t speak, whose brain had been caved in by war, he had a personality. He liked Cap’n Crunch and would watch the science fiction channel for days on end. He had never picked a fight or become violent towards the other residents. He would fall into fits of despair when he refused to leave his bed, but who wouldn’t? And there were times, dozens of them, in the two years that Freddie had been there, when Leroy would wake him in the middle of the night. He would pull Freddie to the back door and knock on it. Freddie would find the key, unlock it, and they would go outside and look at the stars. Leroy would move around the small lawn like an old man, his head back, staring at the faraway galaxies.
Freddie has had a rough go of it himself, and gets why Leroy might want to end his suffering. McCall is the third generation living in his house, but he is among the many suffering under the burden of the number one cause of bankruptcy in the nation, medical bills. One of his daughters was born with dysplasia, required multiple surgeries to repair her hips and Freddie is sinking quickly in a quicksand of debt. And his wife took off with their kids to Vegas to live with her boyfriend. She didn’t take the bills with her. Freddie works two jobs, overnights at the group home and days at Logan’s Paint Store. He catches snatches of sleep when he can. There is no longer heat in his house because he was unable to pay the fuel bill. Desperate for money, he takes on a dodgy venture.
In its majestic equality, the law forbids rich and poor alike to sleep under bridges, beg in the streets, and steal loaves of bread. – Anatole France from La Vie en fleur
Pauline is a nurse at the hospital where Leroy is taken. She tries to help take care of her father, who declines to bathe, wash or eat more than a very narrow list of things. Her mother took off when she was a kid, leaving her in the care of a man who was mentally ill. She did not understand that at the time, but does now. Pauline lives with her pet rabbit Darla, and gets lonely, sometimes. But she has a friend she has known since childhood, and a heart that pulls her to connect with people.
the author – from Australian Broadcasting in 2010
One of the major elements in The Free is how just folks can care for each other in a pure way.
I do believe in the kindness of strangers. One of the great things about being in a band is you find that out. People really help struggling bands. Over the years people have been so nice to me and my band, helped us out, fed us, put us up for the night…It’s easy to be scared and cynical. All you have to do is read the paper. I know I have a rough time that way. But I do believe humans, although violent and destructive, have a great ability for kindness. – from interview at 13E Note Editions
Freddie looks out for the residents at the group home and their families, looking for ways to spare them unnecessary costs, even if it means having to do extra work himself. Pauline comes across a runaway teen girl, and goes to extraordinary lengths trying to save her from certain destruction. For all the hoopla given the wealthy when they make large contributions to this or that, it is the lower economic end that actually gives more, and Vlautin is well aware of that.
One of the most surprising, and perhaps confounding, facts of charity in America is that the people who can least afford to give are the ones who donate the greatest percentage of their income. In 2011, the wealthiest Americans—those with earnings in the top 20 percent—contributed on average 1.3 percent of their income to charity. By comparison, Americans at the base of the income pyramid—those in the bottom 20 percent—donated 3.2 percent of their income. The relative generosity of lower-income Americans is accentuated by the fact that, unlike middle-class and wealthy donors, most of them cannot take advantage of the charitable tax deduction, because they do not itemize deductions on their income-tax returns. – from Why the Rich Don’t Give to Charity by Ken Stern in the April 2013 Atlantic
And this does not even take into account the in-kind contributions people make with their time and labor.
Leroy’s suicide attempt was not successful and he hangs on in a hospital room. Awake, he is in constant pain, so he decides to remove himself from the realm of the real. Most of our experience of Leroy is in his sci-fi fantasies. I was reminded of Billy Pilgrim’s escape to Tralfamador in Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five. Leroy’s adventures contain elements of memory and of fantasy. They are also where Vlautin becomes most metaphorically direct in his critique of 21st century America. This is a world in which people are marked as military-worthy or not, but the mark eventually becomes a mark of Cain and bands of vigilantes hunt them. There is a lot in here about racism, the media, the mean-spirited world in which we live. Leroy’s real-world girlfriend, Jeannette, is a major character in Leroy’s dream-life and nurtures him there the way she nurtured him in real life. It is sometimes difficult to tell where memory leaves off and fantasy picks up.
Religion comes in for some attention here, and not in a supportive way. Religious faith in Vlautin’s universe is a bludgeon used by the unscrupulous, the ignorant, or both to inflict their demands on the young and the powerless. Christian charity in the land of The Free is an oxymoron.
One of the core problems of our economy is personified by an owner who is completely incompetent, but owns and benefits from having a business only because his father left it to him.
Detroit is like rich people. You always hear stories where the dad comes up the rough way, struggles and works harder than everyone else. He builds something, something of value. He spends his whole life doing it. Then his kids come along and take over. They’re so well off that they don’t understand how hard it is to create something good. They just see the money and run with that until it quits. Then everything is lost and even the good idea gives out…
I was most moved by the stories of Freddy and Pauline. Leroy’s story is certainly compelling, but I found it the least engaging of the trio. The one-step-removed methodology used for him kept me feeling one-step–removed as well. If the option were available, I would have knocked my rating down to a 4.5, but the power of the rest moves me to keep this one at five stars. I expect that Willy Vlautin will begin to gain recognition as one of America’s finest artists, a modest guy who embraces his humble beginnings and works to offer us a look at what is becoming the real America for increasing numbers of us. To all of you who are not doing so great in our new two-tiered economy, I strongly encourage you to get into Willy Vlautin. He has been into you for a long time.
Posted – October 10, 2013
The Free will be published in February 2014
Willy Vlautin, born in 1967, grew up in Reno, Nevada. He was a working class kid, raised by a single mom. He was never a great student but had a feel for music and for story. He is one of the founders of the alt-country band Richmond Fontaine. Vlautin’s stories make up much of the lyrics used in the band’s songs. There is a fair bit of crossover between the songs and Willy’s other writing. The Free is his fourth novel. His first, Motel Life has been made into a film with Emile Hirsch, Stephen Dorff and Kris Kristofferson, among others. It is due for release November 2013. His second novel was the award-winning Northline, and the 2010 release, Lean on Pete, was also widely praised.. Vlautin continues to write songs and stories. He lives outside Portland, Oregon these days, when not travelling with the band, but would love to return to Reno someday. His writing calls to mind John Steinbeck and his musical work summons images of Woody Guthrie. He is one of the best writers of his generation.
Willy Vlautin’s site
Willy on Facebook
A promotional vid for The Free
Wiki page on Willy
A short story by WV
Interview with 13eNote