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By Willy Vlautin
Reviewed by Travis Fortney
Willy Vlautin's The Free starts in a group home. Badly disabled Leroy Kevin awakens out of a fog, has his first unmuddled thought in seven years, and decides to use his newfound clarity to kill himself. All he can find to do the job is part of a fence, which he arranges pointed upward at the bottom of the stairs. He then climbs the steps and does a kind of swan dive, impaling himself.
The noise of the act and the bloody mayhem that follows awakens Freddie McCall, the night manager at the group home. Freddy calls an ambulance, and he and the group home's other residents stand watching in shock. "There isn't much we can do to help, so let's try and get back to bed," Freddie tells them. But it isn't any use, they're all transfixed. "None of them moved," Vlautin writes, "not even Freddie."
That frozen moment, the sensation of being caught up in something horrible and not knowing how to react or what to do, is what The Free is all about. Only the something horrible they're caught up in isn't an attempted suicide in a group home, it's life in modern America. If you guessed from the title, the Americana-inspired font and the bleak post-industrial cover image that the characters in The Free will be anything but, then you were right. Vlautin's characters are shackled to a crumbling economy, over-mortgaged, under-insured, and always a minor catastrophe away from losing it all.
After leaving the group home at six in the morning, Freddie makes his way to Heaven's Door Donuts, where the obese but kind-hearted Mora is waiting with "three dozen assorted in two pink boxes." From Heaven's Door, Freddie drives to Logan's Paints, his second job, where his boss Pat puts in about two hours a day, most of which are occupied by Dr. Dobson's radio sermons and microwaved T.V. dinners.
Freddie works at the paint store until 5:30, then drives to the hospital to check on Leroy. At the hospital, Leroy is being taken care of by a nurse named Pauline. After Freddie leaves, we follow Pauline on her shift. She cares for an old man with stomach cancer, a woman who's had surgery to correct chronic esophageal reflux, and an obese alcoholic with a gastrointestinal bleed who vomits blood on her.
Leroy, Freddie, and Pauline are the three hard luck characters we'll spend the rest of this slim book following. In Pauline's sections of the novel, she attempts to rescue a runaway named Jo and cares for her psychologically fragile father. Here, Vlautin is attempting to turn the "nurse novel" a la Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms on it's head. In other words, yes, Pauline is a nurse, but no, she won't be depending on a man to save her. Whether or not this tough, independent take on the "nurse novel" has been done enough times to already be a cliche is up for debate.
Leroy's sections of the book are mostly in italics, because we're watching the fractured, fantastical inner workings of a mind that's lost the ability to communicate with the larger world. In his sections of the story, Leroy is the hero of a sci-fi story where he meets a woman named Jeanette and helps her escape from an authoritarian government. Leroy's sections of the novel reminded me of Jeannie's sections in Philipp Meyer's The Son last year, and I wasn't crazy about Leroy's sections in this book for the same reason that I wasn't crazy about Jeannie's sections of The Son. It's obvious from the early-going where Leroy is heading, and he's taken his only meaningful action by the end of the first chapter. That said, Vlautin manages to wring a fair amount of suspense out of the storyline through the characters who gather in the hospital room, and Leroy's long interior monologue eventually intersects with the larger world in a meaningful and unsuspected way.
While following Freddie, we learn that his family has left him and moved to Las Vegas. We learn that he has crippling medical debt because his youngest daughter was born with hip dysplasia (which I thought was a dog problem, but apparently also affects humans). In one scene, Freddie sits at his kitchen table and writes down a list of his bills. He owes $600 a month in child support, $575 to the hospital, around $1100 on two mortgages, $60 for his phone, and all of his other bills are past due. Freddy is working two full-time jobs. The third-shift gig at the group home seems minimum wage, but his job at the Logan's Paints has real responsibility. He works both jobs six days a week. Certainly, with the two jobs, Freddie's pulling in $3000 a month, and probably quite a bit more. I'm not trying to be unsympathetic, and I don't think anyone should have to work 100 hours a week to get by, but it doesn't seem realistic that Freddie would do everything he does and still not be able to make it work. Even if he's only making $3000 a month, he should be able to get back on track with his bills. But of course that's not the point of this novel. The point is that Freddie's debt load is unbearable, and it is. Maybe the point is to illustrate that Obamacare is a lifeline for people like Freddie. And maybe it is. But pre-Obamacare health insurance wasn't designed for people like Freddie to work 100 hours a week paying off high medical debt. Rather, pre-Obamacare health insurance was designed to force people like Freddie into default, shifting his debts burden to taxpayers. There were approximately 1000 hours of debate about this subject on the House floor just a few short years ago. Also, I'm not an expert on bankruptcy law, but it seems like Freddie would be a good candidate. He doesn't have much in the way of "unencumbered equity," that's for sure. But what's keeping Freddie from the easier route is only his pride, and he knows it, and maybe that's the point. In a lot of ways, The Free is about how far a person can bend without breaking.
It's hard to write about poor people without seeming condescending or even exploitative, but I think Vlautin mostly pulls it off here. He does it by never once straying from the characters he has written, and never passing judgment on their choices.
Out of 10: 9