But nobody ever really gets saved in a Vlautin book, and The Free (Harper Perennial, 320 pages, $14.99), his putative nurse novel, isn’t quite a romance–although it is certainly a book about love. In four novels, Vlautin has carved his own genre out of those for whom America was never really a dream but a pile of dirt, a hit-and-run accident, a lost bet at the horse track. It is Richard Ford’s transient pickup-truck America, the tersely drunken land of Raymond Carver.
The Free begins with the attempted suicide of a trauma-stricken Iraq War vet named Leroy Kervin, who in a rare moment of clarity throws himself out the window of a halfway house. He is found by the house’s caretaker, Freddie, who takes an interest despite having problems of his own: a bitch of a divorce. Leroy is cared for at the hospital, meanwhile, by a nurse named Pauline Hawkins who is impervious to love—or immune to its cancer, in the words of a Drive-By Truckers song named after her character.
The Free’s prose is as stolid and unyielding as Vlautin’s characters, a sturdy march of declaratives, with dialogue that is never made snappy or pretty; Vlautin is unafraid to let it clunk sometimes like an old Chevy knocking from bad fuel. He doesn’t tell you that Pauline’s life is difficult and full of brutality, and that this may have inoculated her against emotion. One follows along, instead, through a life of urine and abscesses, and then watches her get more and more involved in the life of a young drug addict in her care.
The comatose Leroy, meanwhile, is busy saving women in his dreams, in a police-state fantasy world. He’s looking for freedom even when unconscious, maybe the same freedom he was looking for when he hopped out that window in the first place.
But even as the book and its characters stubbornly resist sentimentality—like a shut-off valve on a runaway spigot—The Free remains a deeply compassionate book. It is quiet, and honest, and it is decent.
READ IT: Willy Vlautin reads at Powell's City of Books, 1005 W. Burnside St., on Tuesday, Feb. 4. 7:30 pm. Free. The Free is in stores Tuesday, Feb. 4.