“Suddenly he could think things through, he could put things together, where in the past years he’d been unable to… Tears dripped down his face in relief. Was he finally free? Was he really himself again?”
Willy Vlautin’s The Free is a compelling novel of compassion and sacrifice. Its setting is that of post-war America – a modern country in economic decline, whose majority of citizens struggle to afford basic health care. Leroy, a young and injured Iraq veteran, is the first of the novel’s protagonists that we meet; his story begins in medias res, and we are dropped into a rare moment of clarity in the character’s otherwise troubled and disorderly mind. From the novel’s opening we are given a stark insight into the extent of Leroy’s past trauma – “he couldn’t speak and he couldn’t walk. The life he’d known before the bomb no longer existed.” As the narrative unfolds, we are introduced to Pauline, a nurse who attends to Leroy, and Freddie, a night-watchman at the nursing home for disabled men where Leroy is cared for. The novel centres around the intertwining stories of these three wounded characters, all of whom face deeply personal yet analogous conflicts.
Throughout the novel, Vlautin’s style is understated, and enriched with a subtlety of expression and purpose. His characters are muted, but their portrayals are no less affecting or distinctive because of it. The Free is not a novel of villains and heroes, rather, Vlautin captures the plight of ordinary people, and expands upon the poignancy of their actions with a perceptive sense of realism. The Free is emotive and gritty, and Vlautin effortlessly moves from subtle heartfelt sentiment to the dark and somewhat gruesome. It is a book that, admittedly, I was not initially excited to read, but which seized my attention from the first pages. It is the first novel of Vlautin’s that I’ve read, but it has left me eager to read more.
One of Vlautin’s strengths as a writer is his ability to weave and meander between narratives; of the three primary interlacing stories, at least one will pique your interest. However, the aspect of the novel which I found to work least well was the internal subsidiary narrative of the war veteran Leroy, which the character enters into as an escape from his reality. In these italicised sections of text, Leroy drifts in and out of consciousness in a dream-like manner. These sections bring interesting psychological and metaphorical dimensions to the story, and are usually brief, but at times I found them to be disconnected from the rest of the narrative. In truth, the principal reason that these sections of the novel did not excel for me lies not in any intrinsic weakness of narrative or structure, but a sense that the prevailing strength of The Free’s other novelistic components rather overshadowed them.
In The Free, Vlautin navigates the challenging realm of social realism, and highlights the significance of those who remain quietly dignified when faced with circumstances of indignity – covering themes from the pangs of desperate loneliness, to the depravity of the human consequence of war. The Free is a novel which is ideal for those who are eager to find a story which is rich and rewarding, yet easily accessible – something which can be dipped into, or alternatively devoured. As The Free comes to its conclusion, the significance of that which Vlautin excludes begins to exceed that which he is willing to tell us. The varying resolutions of the protagonists’ plights are both devastating and hopeful, and you will be left to ponder the implications of Vlautin’s creative decisions long after you have turned the final page.