Willy Vlautin, Oregon novelist and musician, has published four novels, all of them dealing with characters in bad situations, especially economically. They are not members of the elite class, or even (most of them) the middle class. These are trailer park citizens or homeless people or people living in run-down motels, just squeaking by, or not even. Reading of the trials, challenges, hard times, but also the good will and love of these characters has given me a new appreciation for people enduring life as a constant battle.
Last week a young man came to my door who reminded me of a Vlautin character. Sixteen years old, his transportation a skateboard, the boy wore dirty jeans and a scruffy tee shirt. He introduced himself, told his story, answered my questions. He wanted to earn $15 to pay off the remainder of the restitution he owed for stealing food from the local big box store. Very well spoken,he was not hesitant or reluctant in relating the facts of his life. He and his mom live in a welfare motel. Mom has a broken back; can’t work. But he was earning the money to finish paying off his debt to society. He’s too young for a “real” job; instead he knocks on doors, tells his story and folks respond with work for him. He attends continuation school and wants to be a welder. He gave me his name and the name of his probation officer and told me to call and check his story.
Noting our weed-choked yard, he said he’d pull weeds to earn the money. Okay, I thought. Why not? I gathered a trash bag, garden gloves, a trowel and a weed puller tool and presented these to the young man. He asked for a bottle of water which I provided. I left him to his work. About a half hour later he knocked on the door and showed me the half full bag of weeds. He had to leave to meet the PO with his payment. I paid his fee and told the young man, if he liked, he could return and we’d have more work for him in a week or two.
The next day I called the probation officer and he verified the information the young man gave me.
The boy reminded me of the main character in “Lean on Pete”. Thank you, Willy Vlautin for making me aware how harsh the world can be for so many. Your work inspired me to help out the young man. What more could a writer ask?
It’s been a long time since I’ve been as moved by a novel as I was by both The Free and Lean on Pete. Northline and Motel Life, are also well worth reading. Vlautin’s a genius at creating characters who live on the edge of disaster and often plunge into it. They make bad choices and suffer from them. But they keep going, with resilience and hope. Vlauntin’s people haunt me. I guess that’s why I recognized one when he came to my door.