Fulfilling the childhood dreams of all the cool kids by becoming a noted singer is one thing. To then do what all the bespectacled swots dreamt of and write a series of critically acclaimed novels simply seems greedy. Willy Vlautin gets away with this envious double act by being so self-defacing and charming that you wish him all the success he certainly deserves.

Prior to a full tour by his band Richmond Fontaine over the next two months, Willy was doing a short series of dates to promote his third novel 'Lean On Pete'. At the small theatre in the Roundhouse he punctuated a reading from the book and questions (from exuberant fan and crime novelist Mark Billingham) with a few of his well-known and lesser-known songs.

'Lean On Pete' is the story of a prematurely mature fifteen year old, who has already had more thrown at him than most twice his age. Rootless, with a feckless heavy drinking father, he finds some meaning, purity and lack of corruption in a mediocre race horse owned by a venal horse trainer for whom Charley works; Lean On Pete. When Pete outlives his usefulness and is about to get a one-way ticket to the glue factory, Charley does the only sensible thing; steals the horse and truck and heads into the badlands of North Western America in an apparently hopeless search for his aunt.

At times 'Lean on Pet'e seems not to be strongly located in the present, though vague allusions to the internet and the Iraq war confirm this to be the case. It could easily be set anytime since the Great Depression threw America into a turmoil; itinerant groups of people trying, often failing, to lay down roots, all the while seeking solace in alcohol and gambling. John Steinbeck and Upton Sinclair are the obvious comparisons that while understandable, Vlautin modestly, though correctly, rejects.

Vlautin does not have you reaching for the dictionary and you feel he wrote this without grabbing a thesaurus, although as it is written in first person by a teenage, that is as it should be. But this simplicity in language and structure is deceptive. Behind it is a world of unstable, dangerous and ambivalent characters giving an insight into the lives of those who missed out on the American Dream. Some such as a man who cannot get out of his car as it is so untidy, promise to be central characters, but turn out to be stand-ins, such is the strength of the characterisation.

'Lean on Pete' began life as a song, 'Laramie, Wyoming' which Willy sang at the Roundhouse and many other songs have intertwined with his previous novels, 'Northline' and 'The Motel Life'. The common ground between song and novel is the simple imagery such the abused racehorse. This has often been the way with great American novels, whether it is Hawthorne’s scarlet letter or Gatsby’s green light. Vlautin, in both lyric and prose, continues to explore the drama of America with honesty, humour and insight.











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