From Publishers Weekly
A blend of road novel and not-quite hard luck story, the latest from Vlautin (The Motel Life
) begins when 15-year-old Charley Thompson and his father move from Spokane, Wash. to Portland, Ore., to give starting over yet another try. When Charley's dad takes up with a married secretary and stops coming home, Charley takes a job with Del Montgomery, a crank based out of the nearby racetrack who, among other things, shoots up a horse with vodka. After Charley's father dies from wounds suffered during a fight with his lover's husband, Charley, whom Vlautin has conveniently given the pastime of running, runs away with Pete, a horse and his only friend. This is where the narrative sours; Charley's trek across the West, occasionally on horseback, is dominated by an unbelievable stretch of luck: men appear to dispense food and money, miraculously uninhabited trailers contain washers and dryers, and his hitchhiking is eerie, but not dangerous. Still, Vlautin's characters, despite their unrealistic arcs, shine with his sparse style. It might be difficult to believe Charley's bottomless cache of silver linings, but it's remarkably easy to root for the kid. (Apr.)
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*Starred Review* With his first two novels—The Motel Life (2007) and Northline (2008)—Vlautin established himself as a poet of the lower classes, his spare, knifelike prose slicing deep into the vulnerable hearts of his struggling, lonely characters. The first two books were set around Reno, but this time he moves north, into the Pacific Northwest, where he attempts something just this side of oxymoronic: an utterly unsentimental story about a boy and a horse. Charley Thompson is a 15-year-old boy who dreams of a normal home and the chance to play high-school football. Newly arrived in Portland with a mostly absent father, Charley hopes for the best and gets the worst. Suddenly homeless, he hangs out on the backstretch at Portland Meadows racetrack and finds a friend—an aging Thoroughbred named Lean on Pete. That’s exactly what Charley does, at least for a while, until Pete, bound for the slaughterhouse, needs to lean on Charley. The perilous journey on which Charley and Pete embark must end badly—think of Kirk Douglas and another loyal horse on the run from civilization in Lonely Are the Brave—but on the road Charley tells Pete the story of his life, and in this young boy’s flatly descriptive but heartbreaking words, reprising a lifetime of barely getting by (“All he had was Banquet frozen dinners and they’re the worst; well, the Salisbury steak’s alright, but there was only one of those”), Vlautin transforms what might have been a weepy, unbelievable TV-movie of a novel into a tough-and-tender account of a boy, a big-hearted horse, and a mostly unforgiving world. What Daniel Woodrell does for the hardscrabble Ozarks, Vlautin does for the underside of the New West. Unforgettable. --Bill Ott