Book Review: Willy Vlautin “The Horse”

Faber And Faber 2024

Willy Vlautin "The Horse" Book Review
Photo Buzz Magazine

On Richmond Fontaine’s 2016 ‘You Cant Go Back if There’s Nothing to Go Back To’, the album cover has a solitary, decrepit horse, standing forlornly in a landscape offering little comfort. It is a moribund picture but the album’s a storytelling masterpiece. 

Which brings us to ‘The Horse’, Willy Vlautin’s seventh novel, recently published in the UK by Faber & Faber. Vlautin has just completed a small tour of the UK and Ireland, signing copies of this book and talking about the background to the story. At Glasgow CCA, Vlautin said while researching his novel ‘Dont Skip Out on Me’ (2018) he came across a wild horse, blind, decrepit, standing under a fierce sun on a lonely, barren salt pan. He said the sadness stopped him in his tracks, to the extent that he seriously contemplated becoming a recluse. He discussed moving to a derelict mining claim, discovered during that same research trip, to cop-out and live in the single-room shack that was the assayers office. Thankfully, Vlautin took the decision to call animal welfare instead and stored the memories. Memory and music have big parts to play in this novel.  

Without giving too much away, Al Ward has opted to live on that isolated mining claim. He’s an ageing musician who has almost withdrawn from any meaningful human contact. The few supply trips he makes to the nearest town become less frequent. The battery in his old Chevy Monte Carlo drains. Mementos from his previous life are few but certain standards remain. Such as his attire and accoutrements. Rings, a Rolex and an iconic Butterscotch Blonde Telecaster lie under his bed. It is winter and there’s heavy snow. He’s surviving on canned soup and instant coffee, burning through his wood in an inefficient stove. He does the same mile walk every day, adding another monotonous notch to a four-by-four stud on a collapsed homestead. If not sleeping or listening to the radio, Al spends the rest of his time re-working songs written in numerous notebooks, all of them annotated with names and places. No longer an aspiring, touring musician, songwriting has become almost a penance, the annotations provoking unstoppable memories. The man is seeing out time and he’s not really wanting to prolong it. Then a blind and utterly helpless horse appears outside his shack. It shakes Al out of his moribund state. Is the horse for real? 

Vlautin has always had this incredible ability to write about ‘dented’ characters and make their stories worth telling, not just in his songwriting but through a compelling collection of novels since 2006. Vlautin admits he is drawn to working-class characters, the cooks, the house painters, cashiers and bartenders. Hardscrabble lives far removed from the American dream. Honesty, willpower and surprising acts of kindness have them clinging on to hope. Al’s ex-wife Maxine describes herself as a ‘ledge walker’, to be so close to giving up that all it takes is one more step.

It is not the first time a horse has featured in one of his books. In his 2010 novel ‘Lean on Pete’, a quarter horse, deemed past its racing prime by grizzled old trainer Del (played splendidly by Steve Buscemi in the film) is being fast-tracked to the slaughterhouse, until fifteen-year-old Charley Thompson intervenes. In this story, a grizzled old musician is voluntarily diminishing until the appearance of a horse. The novelty for Vlautin writing ‘The Horse’ was an opportunity to write about the life of a touring musician and songwriter. Vlautin is more than familiar with the highs and lows of being in a band, being around dented individuals, the widespread use of alcohol and drugs, the infidelity, the time spent travelling to uninspiring venues and fickle audiences. And he understands why they continue to stick at it. In the acknowledgements Vlautin says much of ‘The Horse’ was written thinking of Patterson Hood. Not necessarily implying Hood has indulged in all of the above but he’s written songs for most of his life. Through good runs and bad he has never stopped. Similarly, Vlautin has been writing stories since he was eleven. (While reading ‘The Horse’ I thought more of Mike Cooley in that Pendelton wool shirt). Vlautin mentioned that there are about 230 song titles listed in the novel. As well as being keys that unlock very emotional memories, some make you laugh and others are just tongue in cheek playful. 

At Glasgow CCA Vlautin the novelist switched effortlessly to Vlautin the songwriter. As if to validate Al’s notebook annotations, Vlautin introduced his songs with a memory attached. Sitting on an old ballroom chair, he plugged in that lefty Dreadnought and the room was spellbound. He sang ‘Capsized’ from ‘Thirteen Cities’. ‘Kid Codeine’, written about an eccentric, larger than life bar proprietor with big hair. ‘Wake Up Ray’, ‘Out of State’ from ‘Winnemucca’ and ‘Don’t Skip Out on Me’. Vlautin told us he’s delighted to be in a lounge band these days and gets to wear a suit. He’s sincere in his praise for Amy Boone. A couple of song titles from the book have become real. ‘Marianne’s in the Mental Ward’ and ‘Mr Luck & Ms Doom’, the latter a request from Boone to have just a love story and a song to sing where nobody dies. The final song is a Webb Pierce cover, ‘There Stands the Glass’, vocal duties shared with compare for the evening, local writer and musician Doug Johnstone. Alcohol plays a large part in the book too. There’s a wonderful piece of advice from an old man called R.J. who says, “Nothing good happens in a bar at night to a guy over fifty. Its just a fact.”    

The reverence in the room was most obvious when Johnstone asked for questions from the audience. A room full of people that know Vlautin’s songs and stories inside out don’t really have any questions. Someone asked if he was aware of Americana UK’s recent feature of the Top 10 Greatest Ever Americana Artists. He isn’t, and seems genuinely nonplussed to hear he held the number two position among our writers. (I resisted the urge to call out). It was interesting to note that he didn’t feature at all in the readers’ picks. Vlautin becomes much more animated when he hears that Lucinda Williams topped the poll. Someone asks how Lynette is fairing. A gentleman in the front row just wants to tell him that the album ‘Fitzgerald’ is a masterpiece. He’s asked about the influence of Steinbeck and Carver. Another chance for Vlautin to say how he has always been able to disappear for a while into songs and stories.       

With the world as it is, it is reassuring to have Willy Vlautin around. His songs and stories are very easy to disappear into… even for a short while. If you can’t, I’d get someone to check your pulse.

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