Book Review: ‘The Free’ by Willy Vlautin

READ ON TO WIN YOUR VERY OWN SHINY, NEW COPY OF THE FREE!! (Competition closes Friday 14th November, 2014)

Holding The Free in my hands – before reading a single word – felt good. The ragged-edged pages felt lived in, worn-down, meaningful; reflecting the worn-down lives of the characters within. Pauline, Leroy, Freddie – oh my – how beautifully drawn they are.

Willy Vlautin at the Tuning Fork, Auckland, NZ. Image copyright Caroline Barron

Willy Vlautin at the Tuning Fork, Auckland, NZ. Image copyright Caroline Barron

I was lucky enough to chat to Vlautin when he was in Auckland this month with his new band The Delines. Click here to read more and to – wahoo! – be in to win a free copy of The Free.

I have two favorite things about The Free. Firstly, Vlautin’s dialogue is some of the best I’ve ever read. I reckon you can tell he’s a musician by his dialogue’s perfect rhythm. You only have to read the conversation between street-kid Jo and nurse Pauline (154-164) to see he knows exactly where to go without (he mostly goes without tags) and where to add in (the only occasional action description between lines and lines of talk). The result is swaying, on-beat conversation in perfect real-life tone. Here, Pauline ‘talks’ to her useless, broken father:

“What are you going to do this weekend?” she asked again.

“What do you think?” he said and put his face back down to the soup. He held the spoon like a knife and began shoveling it in and again broth fell to the able.

In a man’s voice she said, “What about you, Pauline? What are you going to do this weekend?”

“I don’t know really,” she answered in her own voice. “Maybe I’ll go to New York and become a prostitute (22).

My second favorite thing about The Free is the italics sections. I eventually decided these sections were the inside of Leroy’s waking/sleeping, it-doesn’t-matter-which-it’s-all-hell, mind. They are the nightmarish result of Leroy sinking further and further into his mind. The most interesting thing about the sections are that they subtly weave together three strands in a psychological braid: the sci-fi stories his mother reads out loud at his bedside, memories of the best time in his life – with Jeanette, and the horrors of fighting in Iraq. The title comes from these sections – ‘The Free’ are the vigilante group who caught people with ‘the mark’ (you’ll understand once you start reading).

The Free by Willy Vlautin (Harper Perennial, 2014)

The Free by Willy Vlautin (Harper Perennial, 2014)

Vlautin cannot help shining his signature lamplight of hope down on his desperate characters. I sought out these moments like glimpses of gold in the pan. I loved his turning of the name of the vigilante group ‘The Free’ on its head in the scene where Freddie sits in his freezing cold, broken down car, thinking about all the bad things that had happened:

“But all these problems would be, they would always be in the shadows, and every person has their shadows. He’d keep his job and with his daughters back he had a home again and a purpose. His life wasn’t a nightmare anymore. He was free” (291 – I’ve added the bold).

Pauline was a beautiful ray of hope throughout the whole book, embodying the book’s dedication: “For the patron saint of nurses, Camillus de Lellis”. I was listening to ZB (NZ talk-back radio) yesterday and was shocked to learn most elderly care workers in New Zealand are paid a paltry NZ$14 – $15 per hour – this for cleaning up feces, heavy lifting of patients and whatever else is required of them. To the woman who phoned in who worked in the community for this rate, and whose employer didn’t even cover her petrol costs – kia kaha. You are my Camillus, my Pauline.

Oh, I almost forgot. Let’s make it three favorite things. Thank you Willy Vlautin for introducing me to the music of Amália Rodrigues, also known as Rainha do Fado (“Queen of Fado”). Wikipedia tells us that ‘fado’ is “characterized by mournful tunes and lyrics . . . and infused with a sentiment of resignation, fatefulness and melancholia. This is loosely captured by the Portuguese word saudade, or “longing”, symbolizing a feeling of loss (a permanent, irreparable loss and its consequent lifelong damage)”. What a beautiful and fitting soundtrack to the damaged lives of the characters in The Free.

Here’s a spellbinding performance from Rodrigues:

The Free is my best book of 2014 so far. And it’s as good as November.

3 thoughts on “Book Review: ‘The Free’ by Willy Vlautin

  1. Pingback: The Heart of the Matter: In Conversation with Alec Patric |

  2. Pingback: Was it You? Did You Win a Copy of ‘The Free’ by Willy Vlautin? |

  3. Pingback: Last Day to Enter: Win a copy of ‘The Free’ (my best book of 2014) |

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