[28 July 2008]
“I didn’t like myself at all back then,” Willy Vlautin confesses. “I like myself now, but then it was much worse.”
The year was 1989: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar played his last game as an L.A. Laker, thousands of Chinese crowded into Beijing’s Tianenmen Square to cheer students demanding greater political freedom, Ronald Reagan was knighted by Queen Elizabeth, and 21-year old Willy Vlautin of Reno, Nevada found himself unemployed and living with his girlfriend in the garage of her parents home.
“I really just wanted to write stories and be in a band but those are hard things to make a living at,” says Vlautin, whose strong work ethic had previously led the college graduate to earn wages as a shipping and receiving clerk, truck loader, and receptionist for a chemical company in Reno.
Five years remained before he would move to Portland, Oregon and co-found the popular alt-country band Richmond Fontaine, and another 18 years before he would enjoy critical success with his first novel, The Motel Life. But a chance encounter with the writing of master storyteller Raymond Carver set the restless youth on the path to fulfillment of those creative goals and, he vows, literally saved his life.
“I was a big fan of Paul Kelly, the legendary Australian singer and songwriter, at that time; his new album, So Much Water So Close to Home, had just been released. I used to sit around and listen to that record over and over again.”
One track in particular rendered the fledgling writer and musician spellbound. Paul Kelly’s “Everything’s Turning to White” is a musical reinvention of Carver’s 1977 short story “So Much Water So Close to Home”, a grim first-person narrative centered on four fishing buddies who discover the nude corpse of a young woman floating facedown in the Naches River. The callous disregard that the four friends display in reaction to their gruesome discovery – “decent men, family men who take care of their jobs”, Carver writes – sends the narrator into a harrowing emotional tailspin.
A careful reading of the album liner notes revealed the source material for Kelly’s song, compelling Vlautin to rush out to the nearest bookstore and buy a copy of Where I’m Calling From. He devoured the book immediately. Carver’s lean and minimalist approach to prose and poetry, coupled with the brutal narrative candor of a punishing and unforgiving God, provoked a visceral response.
“Carver is the first writer who made sense to me,” says Vlautin, whose own prose and story-driven lyrics are deservedly compared to Carver’s. “The pieces didn’t even seem like stories, they seemed like a guy bleeding on the page in the middle of a nervous breakdown. The person writing it could have been my boss or a mechanic or my mom’s boyfriend. The stories weren’t intimidating, they weren’t using words or situations I was unfamiliar with. It was like I was looking into lives I knew something about. I didn’t even notice the artistry behind Carver’s work because I was just floored by the heart and the guts right there on the page. It really changed my life.”
Through Carver’s meditations on the mundane and the commonplace, the aspiring 21-year-old writer who thought his life was circling the drain learned that human failings and quiet marginal lives can provide fodder for memorable fiction. Vlautin began writing “the same week” he discovered the stripped down and lean prose of Where I’m Calling From. “The stories just sort of fell out of me and I never stopped.”
Like the lost and lonely terrain in Sam Shepard’s short story collection Cruising Paradise (“An amazing book!” Vlautin enthuses), Vlautin writes of people and “places that might just as well (be) on the other side of the moon.” The masterful lyrics he has penned for Richmond Fontaine’s eight albums to date evoke desolate images of the deserts of Nevada and the American Southwest and the downtrodden characters who inhabit the less than hospitable land, usually passing their time in bars or broken-down casinos.
In reviewing Richmond Fontaine’s latest release, Thirteen Cities, the Irish Times wrote: “Willy Vlautin’s songs are musical bedfellows to his novels and short stories. They come from the same space and the same desperate, lonely outsiders populate them, hovering on the edge of despair.”
The opening lyrics to the wistful “Incident at Conklin Creek” from The Fitzgerald (2005), a theme album about life on the narrow margins of a casino town, illustrate Vlautin’s storytelling skills in song:
We were camping in the desert/
Near some old mines/
For a week we walked around/
the deserted old shafts/
That’s when we found the body/
It was covered in dirt and gravel/
The only thing showing were the feet/
one shoe on, the other just a worn out sock/
My dad uncovered him/
Said the boy wasn’t even twenty/
Black eyes, broken nose, teeth missing/
He wore a red flannel coat, but he wore no pants/
Dad said he’d probably been dead the last couple days/
Cos there was no smell, and you could still see life/
Life in his face.
When it is suggested that “Conklin Creek” carries echoes of “So Much Water So Close to Home”, Vlautin pauses thoughtfully. “Well, yeah, I suppose the influence is there but I wasn’t consciously thinking of Carver at the time I wrote that and what I was trying to express was different. My mom’s boyfriend and I used to go camping in the desert north of Elko, Nevada (289 miles northeast of Reno). We’re talking way out in the middle of nowhere.
We would camp near these old mines that had been inaccessible to cars for ten years or more. We would come upon a pair of women’s underwear in the sand at the mouth of a cave or maybe just one shoe laying there. It starts you thinking: Who is going to leave a pair of underwear or a shoe behind out in the middle of nowhere? The more you think about it, the darker the scenarios get; your thoughts are intruded upon by the dark things people do and that’s the kind of shit you leave the city and come to the desert to forget.”
Allison Johnson, the wounded and self-destructive protagonist of Vlautin’s Northline, his second critically-acclaimed novel in a year, summons the courage to flee from “the dark things people do” in the desert expanse of Las Vegas, Nevada. Vlautin’s Las Vegas is not the glitzy paradise of high rollers and celebrities, stark neon and artificial New York skylines or casinos cleverly disguised as Egyptian pyramids.
This is a Las Vegas where the background players the reader glimpses are, for instance, an old man in a wheelchair, missing both legs, cut off just below his knees, quietly playing video keno in the old Circus Circus. He wears an old brown western shirt, a cowboy hat, and “his face (was) red from booze and gray with stubble.”
Allison’s mother, a haggard career waitress, is another such example: “She was forty-seven years old and thin, with black hair flecked with gray. Her teeth were brown and she had three pulled that year. She had the face of a woman who drank every day and forgot to eat when she did.”
This desert mirage that Ross MacDonald called “a carny town … (and) L.A.’s most far-flung suburb” is, in Vlautin’s voice, the land of static-riddled AM country radio: Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, Buck Owens, Chet Atkins. The bright fluorescent lights of the Safeway supermarket (“Fryer breasts on sale for $1.70 a pound. Betty Crocker cake mix on sale for $1.99 a box”) are hell on a hangover in Vlautin’s Las Vegas.
This is not the dark underside of the gambling mecca. It is Las Vegas front and center; just veer away from The Strip, steer clear of the posh retirement communities, and it’s there for one to see in all its ugly glory. I should know. I live in Las Vegas, and Vlautin captures Bugsy Siegel’s Disneyland of the Decadent with a flawless eye; throw in a few trailer parks and you might as well be in Bakersfield.
Like a refugee from a Bukowski short story or a Tom Waits song, 23-year-old Allison Johnson was Born Into This. She didn’t ask to be part of the seventh circle of white trash hell that she must navigate through like a drunken traffic cop (she is a blackout drunk with a penchant for vodka sevens), but she had no choice in the matter. Allison is so psychologically damaged by her circumstances – she writes punishing notes to herself that are sometimes difficult to read for their intense self-flagellation – it would take an entire team of Viennese psychiatrists and the ghost of Sigmund Freud to even begin to straighten her out.
Throughout her intense psychological journey, Vlautin ensures that Allison sidesteps self-pity and moves to the next logical level: She simply wants to die but lacks the courage to commit suicide. God knows she tries.
Allison’s low social status is rendered complete when she has a swastika tattooed on her back, a tribute to her abusive neo-Nazi boyfriend Jimmy Bodie, who sums up what Allison must flee from with one simple question: “Do you remember that skinhead party where there was a band in the backyard and the sliding glass door got broken by those two drunk girls fighting?”
Long after Allison escapes Las Vegas, Jimmy Bodie’s presence hangs over the terse and heartbreaking novel like the long shadow of dread. He is an embittered young man consumed by rage who, Vlautin says, “gets angrier the more he fails.” Jimmy is emblematic of a new generation of already-marginalized blue collar laborers who must stand by and watch in helpless horror as their menial jobs are being eroded by an influx of cheap immigrant labor.
“I drew inspiration for Jimmy Bodie’s anger from the period of time when I was working as a house painter,” Vlautin explains; like his prose, his speech is simple and unadorned. “There were a few houses I worked on where crews of illegals were hired and it angered some of the other guys on the job site. I could see it. I could never compete with bids that had a big illegal crew. They can underbid you all day long.”
Drawing on his own past and lengthy experience as a blue collar laborer, Vlautin possesses a noble savage view of the working class in America. “I took jobs that always reflected how I felt about myself so I always took labor jobs. In my heart I think I knew that I was better than those jobs but my confidence level, like Allison’s, wasn’t the best and once you’re in, you start thinking you’re lucky just to be there. The discipline required to work the same job for 20 or 30 years, doing the same thing day after day when really it’s the last thing you want to do, simply amazes me. I don’t know how people can go through that without going crazy or killing themselves.”
Upon learning that she is pregnant with Jimmy’s baby – a frightening reality she conceals from the abusive skinhead – Allison flees north by Greyhound bus to Reno. Through an adoption agency, she is at first put up in a home for girls run by St. Mary’s Hospital. The nameless and faceless couple who will adopt the baby provide for all her needs plus a $1,500 a month stipend, which helps her start a new life in the casino town. Allison finds an apartment, then a job working the graveyard shift as a waitress at the Cal Neva Top Deck restaurant.
She encounters kind people along the way – T.J. Watson, a truck driver mourning the loss of his son, a benevolent bartender and his wife, the morbidly obese but warmhearted telephone sales rep, Penny Pearson, who hires her for extra work – but she remains haunted by regrets, fear, and crippling anxiety attacks that are only alleviated by imaginary conversations that she has with Paul Newman. The Paul Newman dialogues are a stunningly original touch by the author and work as a buffer to bring the reader (and Allison) back from the brink of despair and suffocating darkness.
Allison finds happiness in the end with Dan Mahony, a former plumber whose own life trajectory veered off course after suffering a near-fatal beating by a roving gang of homophobic thugs. It appears that Allison is prepared to settle down into something resembling a life in Reno, taking the final words of advice from Paul Newman to heart: “Remember, kid, there ain’t no place you can escape to. There’s no place where there aren’t weirdos and death and violence and change and new people. You head up to Wyoming or Montana and you’ll run into the same things as you do in Vegas … You’ll run into yourself.”
Northline is not escapist fare, but it is a quick and satisfying read. The urgent message that Vlautin conveys in this slim tale, the same underlying theme of his first Reno-based novel, The Motel Life, is that the marginalized and displaced in our society are fully conscious of their predicament (“You’re going to hell. No matter what happens you’re going to live forever in hell”, Allison writes to herself in one of her punishing letters) and, acutely aware of this misery, would do anything to change things. They just don’t have the tools. They never had them to begin with and perhaps they never will.
“We pay for our mistakes and missteps,” Vlautin says.
The human craving for stability is a deception based on an illusion, Vlautin says through Dan Mahony in the closing chapter as Dan and Allison join hundreds of people on Virginia Street in Reno to observe the implosion of the old Harold’s Club and the Nevada Club:
My uncle always says it seems like they just build strip malls now and tear down the beautiful brick buildings and landmarks that tell you about the things that have gone on here in the past. I guess no one here really cares about the past anymore…So many people move here and to Vegas and all over the West. They don’t have any sorta roots. Maybe chain places are the only roots people have anymore. Maybe roots are Kentucky Fried Chicken and Taco Bell and Wendy’s. And places like K-Mart and Wal-Mart.
As a novelist and songwriter, Willy Vlautin explores Thom Jones’ “the American life of living death” with consummate skill and he is in fine literary company: Carver, of course, but also Larry Brown, Frank O’Connor, Barry Hannah, and Leonard Gardner, all authors that Vlautin acknowledges a debt to. The tender affection he bestows on his bewildered walking wounded is a feat that claws at your heart and soul. Willy Vlautin loves the damaged people that most of us would go out of our way to avoid.
Rodger Jacobs has won multiple awards and grants for his work as a journalist, documentary writer and producer, screenwriter, playwright, magazine editor, true crime writer, book critic, columnist, and live event producer. He provided the preface and original inspiration for Jack London: San Francisco Stories (Sydney Samizdat Press) in 2010.