"}
Words

Free Willy

A tribute to nurses

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

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.

SVCR Don McLean
More Words...
Beyond Protest
Kevin Ranker completes his sermon

Surveying the ashes of the November election, the normally ebullient and thoughtful senator from the islands was nearly speechless with despair.

“How could I have gotten this so wrong?” state Sen. Kevin Ranker asked himself. “Could it be that my beliefs about social justice and human…

more »
The Unsettlers
Nothing simple about it

Journalist Mark Sundeen’s previous book was about a man who has successfully lived without money for the past 15-plus years. The Unsettlers: In Search of the Good Life in Today’s America is also a study of idealism and the struggle to live an authentic life.

Sundeen follows three…

more »
Black Water
After the coup

In the aftermath of a failed coup attempt, the military-led Indonesian government purged thousands upon thousands of communists, leftists and ethnic Chinese. Estimates range from 500,000 to 3 million massacred in all.

It has long been believed that the American C.I.A. was heavily…

more »
Events
Today
KMRE broadcaster receives citizen journalism award

5:00pm

17th annual Bellingham Human Rights Film Festival

10:00am|Whatcom County

Arsenic and Old Lace

7:00pm|Claire vg Thomas Theatre

Into the Woods

7:30pm|Whidbey Playhouse

New documentary focuses human rights film festival

7:52pm

Orchid Show and Sale

9:00am|Skagit Valley Gardens

Sedro-Woolley Breakfast

8:00am|American Legion Post #43

Rabbit Ride

8:00am|Fairhaven Bicycle

Kevin Ranker completes his sermon

1:00pm

Positive Blues

2:00pm|Nancy's Farm

Mock and Maher

3:00pm|Deming Library

Tartarus

4:00pm|Village Books

IGN Cascadia Cascadia Weekly Subscribe Ad 1
Tomorrow
KMRE broadcaster receives citizen journalism award

5:00pm

17th annual Bellingham Human Rights Film Festival

10:00am|Whatcom County

New documentary focuses human rights film festival

7:52pm

Winter Camping Basics

6:00pm|REI

Cuban Salsa

6:00pm|Bell Tower Studios

Bite of Blaine

6:00pm|Semiahmoo Resort

Pizza Party

6:30pm|Community Food Co-op

Rock & Gem Club Meeting

7:00pm|Bloedel Donovan Community Center

Rock and Gem Club Meeting

7:00pm|Bloedel Donovan Community Center

Swing Dance

8:00pm|Eagles Hall

Guffawingham

9:30pm|Green Frog

Northwood Steak and Crab Bellingham Farmer’s Market
Tuesday
KMRE broadcaster receives citizen journalism award

5:00pm

17th annual Bellingham Human Rights Film Festival

10:00am|Whatcom County

New documentary focuses human rights film festival

7:52pm

Farm-to-Table Trade Meeting

8:30am|Bellingham Technical College

Community Preparedness

2:00pm|Bellingham Public Library

Baker Backcountry Basics

6:00pm|REI

All-Paces Run

6:00pm|Fairhaven Runners

Putting the kick in cross-country

6:00pm

Dressings, Sauces and Stocks

6:30pm|Ciao Thyme Commons

Prawn Particulars

6:30pm|Community Food Co-op

Tides

7:00pm|Village Books

Books on Tap

7:00pm|North Fork Brewery

see our complete calendar »

IGN Cascadia Bellingham Technical College Village Books Cascadia Weekly Subscribe Ad 1 Trove Bellingham Farmer’s Market Northwood Steak and Crab