Free Willy

A tribute to nurses

Willy Vlautin’s confession at the recent Chuckanut Radio Hour that, at 13, he had a picture of John Steinbeck by his bed, shouldn’t surprise anyone who has read his novels.

Also compared to Raymond Carver for his “dirty realism” (a literary style coined by Granta magazine), Vlautin explores the underbelly of contemporary life in a voice that is “understated, ironic, sometimes savage, but insistently compassionate.”

Inspiration for Vlautin’s latest novel, The Free, came from several quarters. He has long followed, with concern, stories of veterans who return home from war with brain injuries and are never able to live normal lives again. He has watched friends and acquaintances be crushed by impossible medical bills. When his girlfriend changed jobs and was denied insurance, he sat down and started writing. 

The Free is dedicated to Camillus de Lellis, the patron saint of nurses, who Vlautin asks to watch over his hard-working and down-on-their-luck characters. Early in the story, Leroy Kervin, a soldier returned from Iraq with a brain injury, experiences a moment of clarity from the fog he has been living in. Deciding to take his own life lands him in the hospital on life support, where his mother keeps vigil at his bedside, reading science fiction novels aloud to him. Much of Leroy’s story is told through dystopian nightmares as science fiction and his past weave together with the morphine.

Freddie McCall, the overnight staff person at the group home, works two jobs and still can’t make ends meet. His wife has taken the kids and moved out, leaving him with a double mortgage and a huge medical bill from his daughter’s hospital care (she has a congenital birth defect). He misses his kids but can’t think of anything to ask them about when he calls them at their new home in Las Vegas.

The Free is really a tribute to nurses, and Pauline Hawkins, the swing shift nurse who cares for Leroy, is the soul of the book. (She is such a memorable character, the band the Drive-by Truckers wrote a song about her.) Pauline works too much, needs to lose weight and doesn’t let anyone get too close to her. We get glimpses into her inner life through her relationship with her mentally ill father, who she cares for.

Vlautin’s mastery is his ability to make us care deeply for these characters by sharing only the simplest moments in their lives. The glimpses are spare and often raw, but be warned that the language will etch these characters on your heart.

Did I mention Vlautin is also a songwriter, having produced nine studio albums with the Portland-based band Richmond Fontaine? He has said his characters typically introduce themselves first in the songs he writes about them. This synergy between music and words is key to the memorable harmony and dissonance produced by this writer.

Lisa Gresham selects adult materials for Whatcom County Library System and enjoys using the library’s Freegal service to find new music in her spare time.

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