Having recently release new album Teeth Dreams, The Hold Steady‘s Craig Finn is getting ready for the road – UK dates take place this May – by getting together his tourbus reading. However one book he couldn’t wait to read was Willy Vlautin’s novel The Free. He’s written us this guest column on his passion for the book…
Willy Vlautin‘s newest novel The Free, has moved me more than any book I’ve read in years. It is an extraordinary reflection on human kindness. As with his other books, Vlautin writes here about everyday people that are trying to keep their heads above water despite difficult circumstances. The characters in The Free struggle with family problems, addiction, debt and mental and physical health issues. There will be people that find The Free to be too heavy and depressing to enjoy. Admittedly, the subject matter is bleak. But I found the characters ability to care about each other despite harsh circumstances to be truly inspiring.
The story concerns an army veteran, Leroy Kervin, who has been badly wounded in Afghanistan. Leroy is in a group home and throughout the book, he barely gains consciousness. Instead, we mostly know Leroy through his dreams, where he takes his real life girlfriend on an adventure that revisits and reverses his decision to join the army. There is most certainly tragedy defining his character and situation, but with the dream sequences Vlautin shows us a glimmer of hope and love amidst the sadness.
Leroy is tended to by an amazing nurse named Pauline Hawkins. Throughout the book she works tirelessly, and largely thanklessly, to help her patients. She also takes care of her infirm father at home. She is so tired she can barely make it to bed at night, but she gets up each day and cares for others. She even has a good sense of humor about most things, and a tough but sweet demeanor. Here Vlautin has created another character that is both admirable and believable.
My favorite character in the book is Freddie McCall. He runs the group home that houses Leroy and also works a second job in a paint store. Despite two jobs, he is still crushed by outstanding debt, which forces him to consider illegal activity to provide for his family. At one point in the story he tells his daughters that we all get tired, and even though we are tired we still need to be kind to one another. This almost seems like a thesis statement for the novel.
I have been a fan of all of Willy Vlautin’s books. I love the way he creates characters that are real people with real problems, not unlike those of Carver or Steinbeck. I believe The Free to be his best and most realized novel. After reading it, the story didn’t leave my head for weeks. Eventually it inspired me to reach out to a few people in my life that I thought might need some kind words. It’s affect on me was unique and profound. The Free is sometimes sad and difficult, but ultimately it is a beautiful and moving story.
For more, including the band’s tour dates, head to Theholdsteady.net. The Hold Steady’s Teeth Dreams is reviewed in Q334, out now.