Stories about working-class people often focus on the question of morality. Fictional poor people are either plucky saints who just need a chance in life or troubled souls whose moral centers have been hollowed by their circumstances—or maybe it's the other way around, depending on the author's point of view.
Lynette, the protagonist of Willy Vlautin's sixth novel, The Night Always Comes, is neither of these. As the novel opens, she's already been offered a chance and has put all her waking energy into seizing it. The owner of the North Portland house Lynette shares with her mother and developmentally disabled adult brother offered them the chance three years ago to buy it for a little less than market value.
But as the book opens, Lynette's mother, a week from signing the loan paperwork, announces she doesn't actually want to buy a house after all. So Lynette sets out to address the situation—but each attempt she makes presents a host of new problems and suggests increasingly dangerous solutions.
The Night Always Comes is about a woman trying to find her place in a changing Portland, but it avoids easy nostalgia. In fact, it's not clear the characters were any happier in the pre-gentrification city than they are in the place where they live now. It's simply that the city changed in a way that never gave them a chance to catch up. Vlautin writes that 20 years ago, Lynette's mother "would have never set foot" on Mississippi Avenue, but now the family regularly walks the street on weekends, mostly window shopping and surveying the menus at restaurants they can't afford to eat at. (No character in this book is described in terms of race, but Portland readers, at least, don't need to be told who was afraid of Mississippi in the early 2000s and who cheerfully takes to its sidewalks now.)
The book takes place over the course of a single weekend as Lynette cruises around the city in search of money, but the plot is interspersed with flashbacks describing how she got here—and why she's so desperate for a better life. Vlautin's prose is generally crisp and straightforward, making the book a quick read, with a slight exception: Every few chapters there's a scene of heavy dialogue between two characters who typically speak in long paragraphs, often about an emotionally fraught subject. (More than one has Lynette and her mother hashing out years of complex history. Another has Lynette confronting a man who groomed her as a teenager.) The first few of these scenes are slow and plodding, but gradually I came to appreciate them as a change in pace from the increasingly frenetic primary plot.
In the acknowledgments, Vlautin writes that after putting together a down payment to buy a $72,000 house in 2000, he stopped going out so much and started staying home to mow the lawn. "I began to like myself," he writes. If throwing down roots in a place can change a person for the better, The Night Always Comes asks what happens to people who never get the chance to do it. Vlautin doesn't offer answers, but he does end the book on an optimistic note, suggesting hope is out there somewhere—and, in the meantime, he paints a recognizable, sometimes harrowing portrait of a city in flux.
STREAM: Willy Vlautin discusses The Night Always Comes with Chelsea Cain at 6 pm Wednesday, April 7. See powells.com/events-update to register.