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.

3 Oms 8th Anniversary (Spotlight)
More Words...
Fear is Fear
A Colony in a Nation

There have been a number of important post-Ferguson books examining the rise of militant policing, prison privatization, epidemic incarceration rates of black and brown people, and gun violence. I was skeptical that Chris Hayes’ new book, A Colony in a Nation, could add a fresh…

more »
Strange Sojourn
The last true hermit

Among the residents of North Pond, there was a legend: a hermit who emerged from the forest to ransack homes, taking food and gear and books. Items disappeared almost without a trace; you were sure you’d left batteries in the drawer, but suddenly they were gone. There were…

more »
Ground Zero
Civil rights activist Angela Davis speaks at WWU

“At a challenging moment in our history, let us remind ourselves that we the hundreds of thousands, the millions of women, trans-people, men and youth, we represent the powerful forces of change,” Angela Davis noted at the Women’s March on Washington in January.

“We recognize that we…

more »
Events
Today
All-Paces Run

6:00pm|Fairhaven Runners

Downtown Walk with WNPS

6:00pm|Maritime Heritage Park

Bellingham Reads

6:30pm|Bellingham Public Library

Audubon Talk

7:00pm|Whatcom Museum's Old City Hall

MVHS Jazz

7:00pm|Lincoln Theatre

University Choir

7:00pm|Lincoln Theatre

Books on Tap

7:00pm|Maggie's Pub

Skagit Folk Dancers

7:00pm|Bayview Civic Hall

Lester and Hyldahl
Tomorrow
Ski to Sea Book Sale

10:00am|Bellingham Public Library

Spring Tea

2:00pm|Lynden Community Center

Blaine Marina Tour

2:00pm|Blaine Marina

Sedro-Woolley Farmers Market Opening

3:00pm|Hammer Heritage Square

Group Run

6:00pm|Skagit Running Company

Brewers Cruise Kickoff

6:30pm|Bellingham Cruise Terminal

Just Halibut

6:30pm|Community Food Co-op

Thomas Marriott Quartet

7:00pm|Unity Spiritual Center

Panty Hoes

9:00pm|Rumors Cabaret

Northwood Steak and Crab Trove
Thursday
Ski to Sea Book Sale

10:00am|Bellingham Public Library

BC Morgan Horse Show

9:00am| Northwest Washington Fairgrounds

Parkinson's Dance Class

10:00am|Ballet Bellingham

Whatcom Food Network's Spring Forum

1:00pm|Squalicum Boathouse

Experience Ireland

6:00pm|Whatcom Community College

Red Light to Starboard

6:30pm|Bellingham Unitarian Fellowship

Elimination Diet Cooking

6:30pm|Community Food Co-op

Movie Trivia

7:00pm|Bayou Annex Bar

Adventure Awaits!

7:00pm|Village Books

Balkan Folk Dancers

7:00pm|Fairhaven Library

What-A-Sho!

7:00pm|Bellingham High School

Golden Goose Preview

7:30pm|Performing Arts Center

Crevasse Rescue Clinic

7:30pm|Backcountry Essentials

Julius Caesar

7:30pm|Miller Hall

Twelfth Night

7:30pm|Philip Tarro Theatre

see our complete calendar »

Bellingham Farmer’s Market Cascadia Weekly Subscribe Ad 1 Northwood Steak and Crab Village Books Trove Lester and Hyldahl