For quite a while, there has been a legend among journalists and writers who follow all things music. It concerns a young up and coming rock journalist who has been sent to interview the blues master B.B. King. As it goes, sometimes with up and coming journalists, they tend to make statements instead of asking questions.
In this case, at one moment, the ‘youngster’ tells BB King: “But mister King, your guitar solos sound so simple…” BB retorted: “Son, that’s why they are so hard to play.”
It’s the same situation a reader is faced when taking on Willy Vlautin’s fifth novel, Don’t Skip Out on Me. On its surface, his writing seems all too simple — he writes clean and uncomplicated sentences that create clear images. Sometimes he presents absolutely detailed images, even about some day-to-day things, like what his characters are having for dinner and what kind of music they are listening to.
As with BB King’s guitar solos, however, it’s the simple things that are truly complicated. Rather life itself. Like having trust in yourself and what lies within, or what it truly means to be lonely. Light writing, heavy questions. Vlautin concentrates on presenting the images as if in hope that they will present answers. Vlautin sets his story of Horace Hopper, a half-Paiute, half-Irish adopted ranch hand who tries to transform himself into a Mexican boxer in a big city. As he travels across vast regions of Arizona and Nevada, eventually landing in Los Angeles, he finds himself feeling introspective.
Throughout his work, whether as a novelist or as a musician, songwriter and lyricist for two bands – Richmond Fontaine and The Delines — Vlautin has paid detailed attention to his characters, usually those from the side of life many people would rather not look at.
With Vlautin’s writing there is often a prevailing impression that his style was inspired by greats like Raymond Carver and Dennis Johnson. But Vlautin is not an imitator of either, just a writer who likes to present clear, often down to earth images. What can be taken as his writing characteristic though is this prevailing sense of optimism and persistent hope, even if things seem hopeless. In Don’t Give Up on Me, things keep getting worse, not only for Horace Hopper, but for his adopting parents, Mr. and Mrs. Reese. Still, hope persists.
It’s understandable that readers may think that Hopper is the key character around whom the story evolves, but it’s is eventually revealed that Vlautin has developed a parallel key character; that of Mr. Rees. Through Hopper, Vlautin develops elements like childhood trauma, bigotry, lack of confidence and particularly loneliness. Through Mr. Reese, he develops elements like, hope, trust, strong beliefs, and perseverance in the face of adversity.
All these themes are something that Vlautin has already been exploring, both through his music and writing. With “Don’t Skip Out on Me,” it seems that he has reached some kind of pinnacle of this exploration, since he has prepared a special Richmond Fontaine instrumental soundtrack that is also annotated in the book. As the story winds to its conclusion, one of the questions the readers have to resolve themselves is, who is skipping out on whom? Is it another person, or is it just one’s self? Simple question. Hard to play out.