The novelist and musician Willy Vlautin wrote his latest book in the grandstands of Portland Meadows, at a trackside betting table that doubled as his office. More recently, Vlautin began renting a workplace above Proper Eats organic grocery in St. Johns, but when he's stuck on a story—about two times a week—he still drives his white Toyota pickup out to the horse track. It's a habit he's kept for 15 years, ever since he moved to Portland from Reno and found a place where he didn't feel so lonely.
"It's like a library," Vlautin says, "but more interesting. I've never had a bad day writing out here. You can stay out here eight hours. There are a lot of good distractions."
When I meet Vlautin at the track for the first time, he's seated with a cup of coffee on the first floor of the glass-encased spectator concourse, his attention divided halfway between a laptop computer, which holds his latest short stories, and the Daily Racing Form, which holds the odds on the 350-yard race about to start. "You're in luck," he says, pointing to the lineup. "This'll be funner than shit."
Vlautin places a $2 wager on two quarterhorses, Cupids Dash and Sissis Little Nipper, and they finish first and second, winning him $15—enough to buy lunch and a couple of Heinekens, his standard gambling goal.
But as he enthusiastically suggests that I try the chicken dinner at the concession stand, his blue eyes look worried. He wants to know what kind of story I'm writing.
"I can't talk bad about Portland Meadows," he explains. "It's one of the only friends I got left."
The novel Vlautin has written at—and about—Portland Meadows is called Lean on Pete. It arrives in U.S. bookstores next Tuesday, after rave reviews in England and Ireland. (WW has an exclusive excerpt below.) It's about a practically orphaned teenage boy, Charley Thompson, who tries to save a racehorse on its last legs. The plain-spoken first-person narration is exquisitely affecting—partly because it's written by a man who wants to preserve a racetrack that is also dying.
"If you're a fan of something," he says, "you've really got to protect it."
But horse racing is a hard sport to defend. In the same race in which Vlautin wins $15 on Cupids Dash, another horse throws his jockey coming out of the starting gate. Vlautin immediately spots the fall, even though it's at the far end of the track, and together we watch as the jockey sits dazed at the edge of the dirt.
"It's like anything else," he says. "You fall in love with something, you want to learn more about it, figure it out. But you figure out horse racing, it's like diving into a river and finding a rusted car underneath."
At age 42, Willy Vlautin is on the cusp of what passes for fame in Portland. His meditative country band, Richmond Fontaine, just finished a European tour—they love him in Ireland—and its most recent album, We Used to Think the Freeway Sounded Like a River, sold 17,000 copies. His last two novels, The Motel Life and Northline, earned him plaudits as the next coming of Raymond Carver, Charles Bukowski and John Steinbeck.
It's getting so Vlautin no longer has to supplement his income with house painting, the first job he ever felt successful doing after years of barely staying employed loading trucks. He has time to stay at home in Scappoose with his girlfriend, Lee Posey (a baker at Little T American Bakery, she was introduced to Vlautin by Pok Pok chef Andy Ricker when Vlautin was painting Ricker's buildings), or charm national literary journalists with his homespun aphorisms and those blue eyes.
Portland Meadows, by contrast, is nearly forgotten in the city. It hardly even seems to be in Portland. Sitting in the center of a North Portland neighborhood gully called Delta Park, it is cut off from the rest of town by Interstate 5 on one side and the embankments of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard on the other—isolated along with a neighborhood of doublewide trailers, tiny two-bedrooms and manufacturing warehouses.
The racetrack used to be a glamorous place. When it opened in 1946, Portland Meadows became the first track in the country to run night races under electric lights. The grandstands were swamped by the 1948 Vanport flood and razed in a 1970 fire, but when a new three-story, glass-windowed building debuted the next season, a record crowd of 12,635 showed up for opening day. The standard attendance for a Sunday race in the '70s was 6,000.
A good day for Portland Meadows now is 150 people, most of them aging gamblers. Small-track horse racing has seen its audience siphoned off by Indian casinos, state lotteries, off-track betting and online wagering, and Vlautin can recite the tracks that have closed or are closing: Bay Meadows, Hollywood Park, Golden Gate Fields. Meadows remains open, but the northern two-thirds of the grandstands—the part with the old-style wooden benches—is locked up even on live racing days. Those days are now Mondays and Wednesdays, so the track can make its money simulcasting races to other tracks and casinos on their off times. The betting windows on the second and third levels have been replaced by squat black computers. Workers haven't finished painting over the places where the cash registers were ripped out.
The track's corporate owner, Canadian company Magna Entertainment, is in Chapter 11 bankruptcy and has been trying to sell Portland Meadows since 2007. Nobody's buying. The trainers who still enter horses race for purses as small as $2,500, split four ways among the winners, and the jockeys line up in the mornings at a small wooden building, hoping to be assigned a mount they may have never ridden before.
It's here, on the back side of the track that Vlautin has breakfast in a diner called Cindie's Backend Cafe, usually open only to trainers, jockeys and groomsmen.
In a linoleum-floored room where grizzled men drink coffee and watch westerns on a corner TV, Vlautin explains how he decided he needed to write about the jockeys thrown from their mounts, and the quarterhorses whose forelegs cracked off and hung by only skin. He needed to write about a horse called Lean on Pete (based on a real horse at Portland Meadows that was apparently inaccurately named, since his trainer said, "You couldn't count on that horse for anything.") He needed to write about a character like Charley Thompson.
"A kid who gets up every morning and, no matter what, tries," Vlautin describes Charley. "I wrote him because I was having a hard time getting out of bed. I was running out of reasons."
The best song Vlautin has written for Richmond Fontaine mentions horse racing only in passing. "I Fell Into Painting Houses in Phoenix, Arizona," on the 2007 album Thirteen Cities, tells the story of a man who gets a janitorial job at the Phoenix racetrack Turf Paradise and thinks about the worst things he's seen. "To watch a horse break down," the song goes, "Or your girlfriend who can't stand the sight of her own face/ Or to watch your sister drink her life away…/ Get me out of here, get me out of here."
Willy Vlautin has always been trying to escape. He's often anxious ("Bad nerves, I call it. My grandmother had bad nerves") and looks for ways to stop his mind from racing. "Budweiser, baths and books," he says. "That got me through from when I was 18 to last night."
But Vlautin likes things too much. He likes drinking too much. He likes gambling too much. He likes the places where drinking and gambling happen too much. "Whenever I see something romantic," he says, "I cling to it with both fucking hands." And when he likes something too much, he spends too much time with it, and finds things as terrible as the things he was trying to escape.
"I think the only way it gets depressing is if you get too close," Vlautin says. "If you go to the same old-man bar too much, the romance wears off. And I need the romance to stay alive."
What's left are stories—stories of how the world should be, and how it is.
As the child of a single mother in Reno, Vlautin watched movies and created family there. "In my head, Harry Dean Stanton was my dad," he says. "And he would give me bad Repo Man advice. It was great." He saw the 1937 movie Swing High, Swing Low with Carole Lombard. "I liked her so much in that movie, that she—this is really fucking stupid—she became my girlfriend in my mind. It was kind of nice sometimes."
The stories Vlautin tells now are more honest. He's writing a novel about a nurse who treats dying soldiers coming back from the Iraq war, and a series of stories about a kid who's getting addicted to gambling and an old man who's trying to break the habit. He writes about the people he doesn't know how to protect.
"I think I've always been able to see people going through a hard time," Vlautin says. "I think my heart's just dipped in that. Sad novels and sad stories just make the most sense to me. And they ease my mind. Ease my mind greatly."
Lean On Pete, Chapter 4
I blew the ten [my dad] gave me at the movie theater. I watched a comedy about a newscaster, and I bought a hot dog and a Coke and a candy bar. When it was over I snuck into another movie about a ship's captain who sails around getting into fights and a kid gets his arm blown off. When it was over and I had to leave the theater I got pretty down. I knew then, that night, that Portland would be worse than Spokane. At least I had friends in Spokane.
I woke up the next day and decided I'd get a job so I could have my own money. I was only fifteen so I lied on all the job applications and applied to the places I could walk to. There were help wanted signs at Joe's Sporting Goods, Banditos Mexican Restaurant, and Napa Auto Parts. But none of them called me after I filled out the application. I tried for a dishwasher job at Shari's and for a job pumping gas at a 76 station but neither of them called me either. So I just stayed home and watched TV, waiting for the summer to end and for football tryouts to start in August.
A Meadows racehorse on a hot-walker on the back side of the track. Vlautin declined to be photographed here. He didn't feel he'd "deserved it." IMAGE: vivianjohnson.com
I ate through that run of groceries and after that whenever he gave me money I was smarter with it. I'd buy a big package of hamburger, a couple cans of spaghetti sauce, and a box of spaghetti and I'd make a big batch of it. I'd eat on the same thing for days.
I went running past the track one morning when I saw an old man in a gravel parking lot trying to change a tire on an old horse trailer. He was swearing at it. Each time he tried to get a lug nut off he'd start cussing. He had a low rough voice, and every other word he said was fuck or cocksucker or motherfucker or motherfucking cunt. I stopped and watched from a distance.
He saw me standing there.
"What the hell are you doing?" he said. He had the lug wrench in his hand.
"Me?" I yelled over to him.
"There ain't no one else here," he said.
"I'm just running."
"Are you strong?"
"I'm pretty strong," I told him.
"Come over here," he said.
I walked to him. He was old, maybe seventy, and dressed in cowboy boots and jeans and a flannel shirt. He hadn't shaved in a couple days and even then just meeting him I could tell he was shitfaced drunk. He smelled like beer and his eyes were bloodshot and glassy. He had a big gut and was going bald. The hair he did have was mostly gray on the sides and he had it greased back. His right arm was in a cast and he was chewing tobacco.
"What time is it?"
"Maybe six thirty," I said.
He shook his head.
"I gotta load two horses and get to the Tri-Cities by one, and I got a flat."
I looked down at the tire. There were two cans of Fix-a-Flat next to it.
"Is that far?" I asked.
"Far enough. Look, my arm ain't worth two shits. I'll give you five dollars if you can get the lugs off."
"I'll try," I told him. I took the wrench and set it on the first nut. I pushed down as hard as I could and it gave. I got four others off but I had to jump on the last one until it broke free. After that he told me he had a jack behind the seat in his truck and asked me to get it. I did and jacked up the axle and pulled off the flat, put on the spare, and tightened down the lug nuts.
When I was done he took three dollars from his wallet.
"I thought I had a five," he said and handed it to me.
"Del," he said and put out his left hand and we shook.
"Charley," I told him. "What happened to your arm?"
"I slipped," he said.
"Why are you going to the Tri-Cities?"
"There's a race."
"A horse race?"
"Do you need help?"
"Help with what?" he said.
"You're looking for a job?"
"How old are you?"
"Sixteen," I told him.
"You know much about horses?"
The old man looked around. With his left hand he took a can of Copenhagen from his back pocket. He knocked the can of chew into the side of his leg, opened it with one hand, and set it on the hood of his truck. The fingers on his left hand were covered in dirt and grease and his pinky was bent out like it had been broken off and put back on wrong. He put those fingers in the tobacco, took a big dip from the can, and put it between his front lip and gum. He closed the can, put it back in his pocket, and spit on the ground. Some of the spit fell on his chin and he left it there.
"Will your folks let you spend the night away?"
"How far away is it?"
"Four hours, if we're lucky."
"Where will we be staying?"
"I'll be sleeping in the cab. You can sleep wherever you want, or in the back of the truck. I don't care. You got a sleeping bag?"
"Yeah," I said.
"I'll give you twenty-five dollars if you help me up there and back."
"Yeah," he said.
"We'll be back tomorrow afternoon?"
I had two dollars and change and the three he just gave me.
"Okay," I said.
"What about your parents?"
"They want me to get a job," I said.
"Over there is the backside of the track. There's a cafe just off the road," he said and pointed towards it. "You see the beer sign?"
"You'll have to talk to the security guard to get in. Just tell him you work for me, Del Montgomery, and he'll show you where to go. I'll be there for a half-hour, then I'm gonna load up and leave. If you're here by then I'll take you."
He turned and walked away. He dragged his left leg a little and it seemed like it was painful for him to walk. He made his way out of the parking lot, then across the street and through an entrance gate where the security guard stood in a small shack. When I saw where he went I ran back to my house. I left a note for my dad, changed my clothes, rolled up my sleeping bag, and tied it with a piece of rope. I put the five dollars in a plastic bag and folded the bag as small as I could and put it in my shoe and left.