The Free
A Novel
Willy Vlautin
(Harper Perennial)
Larry was in the National Guard and got sent to Iraq and a roadside bomb exploded next to his company's truck and he woke up in Germany with two broken arms and brain trauma. "He couldn't speak and he couldn't walk. The life he'd know before the bomb no longer existed. That Larry Kervin had vanished."

Back in Washington State they put him in a "second-rate" group home and for seven years he just lay there but one day he woke up "with clarity ... Memories flooded him," his past life, his family, his girl-friend.

But Larry became convinced that his foggy state would return, so he ties a picket fence to the bottom of the steps, runs upstairs and then leaps down on it. "He landed on top of the old wooden stakes and they plunged into him as he crashed to the ground and lay unconscious and bloody on the floor." They took him to the hospital where he began the slow process of dying under the care of kindly nurse Pauline who lives at home with her crazy father and a rabbit named Donna.

Pauline also takes care of Mr. Flory, "a weathered old man with stage IV stomach cancer." She takes care of Jo who ran away from home and ended up with three hooligans who forced her into sex and then shot her up with heroin. Now she's in the hospital because the sores on her legs from the injections have become infected. Jo's boy friend comes to see her and he's wearing "dirty, ripped jeans."

    He had on four shirts layered under a ragged black-leather jacket. His hair was greasy and matted and cut crudely, and his hands were covered in scabs and homemade tattoos ... his face was covered in acne."

Freddie McCall is another character in The Free. He is the caretaker where Larry lives when he tried to kill himself. Freddie's wife ran off with another man and one day she calls Freddie and says she can't stand taking care of the kids anymore, asks him to come get them so Freddie drives his old Comet to Redding and gets them but as they are on the road back the transmission falls off and they have to call a tow truck else they'll freeze to death there in the middle of nowhere with the mountains and the sagebrush and no houses.

Being towed and getting to the next place ninety miles away (where there are no motel rooms anyway) and repairing the truck eats up all the money that Freddie borrowed his house. The bank is about to foreclose on it so he agreed to let two Indian hippies cultivate eighty dope plants down in the basement but then he got spooked by the smell and so he kicks them out because he knows he'll get busted and even though he used the $1000 the dopesters paid him to bail out his daughters and even though he has two jobs he knows he is going to lose the house so where will he and the two girls end up?

Beats me.

And will beat you too, because after they sleep in the car all night and the repairman's wife comes with a dog named Lillipop, the woman and the two girls and Freddie and Lollipop disappear there somewhere in the middle of nowhere in the middle of page 292 in front of the repair shop. And I recall the oldest counsel the masters give to new playwrights and novelists: "if you can't get them out don't put them in."

And also I am thinking, why am I reading this Disasterville stuff, anyway? I mean I'm under water at home too although I don't have any pot plants down in the basement at least not yet and my ex-husband didn't go off to Redding just to the ritzy section across town but he uses every excuse in the book to delay the monthly check and one of my sons just got his lip pierced and it looks infected to me but when I try to bring it up he just goes silent won't talk to me and meanwhile his older brother stays out suspiciously late and comes home reeking, his eyes red and if I try to clean up his room with about a million of his CDs in it (the Blue Öyster Cult, The Queens of the Stone Age, The Smashing Pumpkins) he accuses me of spying on him and he refuses to bathe so that when I am reading about Jo's greasy boyfriend I'm thinking that's my son all over.

I'm also thinking I don't need to read a book about people who have more trouble than I do. I mean I didn't impale myself on a picket fence or cultivate ulcers on my leg or have to put up with an old man who will only eat canned soup and complain about me not having a man around the house (except him, and he's scarcely a man). The Free is just too much pain and psychic drudge and lonely characters who have no reason to stick around: the smart one bailed out but then he screwed up on the picket fence.

I can't really tell the difference between these freaks in The Free (who are definitely not free) and the ones I have to put up with.

Furthermore, Vlautin is not content with grossing us out with Jo's cysts and Freddie's disastrous financial situation and Larry's dementia and Leroy's mother there in the hospital.We may get quite fond of Pauline even worry that she is going to die alone and maybe she worries about it too because finally she calls in an old boyfriend by the name of Ford Wrenn and meets him in the bowling alley:

    "I'm going to be honest with you, okay?"


    "I know we just met, but I don't want a boyfriend. I don't ever want one. That's the truth."

    "Fair enough. You already told me that on the phone. I'm not the smartest, but I do remember you saying that."

    "And I don't want your stuff at my place, and I won't give you a key."

    "That's alright," he said. "You're jumping the gun anyway."

    "I just want you to know that."


    "And we'll have sex only when I want to have sex."


    "I don't like being pressured."

    Ford sat back in the bench seat and took a drink of his glass of beer. He smiled. "Anything else?"

    "I just want you to know I won't depend on you. Not ever."

    "You don't have to if you don't want to."

    "And we're not going to do it at my place."

    "That's okay, too. I have money. I like the Red Lion."

    "I'll pay half."

    "I'm not worried," he said. "Relax, this is our first date..."

If I were Wrenn I'd probably be out the door heading home leaving Pauline to her own devices but I guess the author wanted to make sure she gets someone so she'll have a place to rest her weary head after she gets off work. Let's hope he stays around.

Finally, what we don't have to have are the seven chapters that Vlautin dredged up from Leroy's deranged mind before they finally unplug him. They're in italics which means if you do buy this book you can easily skip over them. You'll miss nothing unless you crave blood-soaked bodies of men, women, and children shot or stabbed or hung or burned or "with their heads blown off" or "with their hands nailed to the deck of the boat" and one woman, dead, "hand-cuffed to a cleat with black plastic ties." In the penultimate gore-passage, I counted sixteen bodies, two dead dogs and one half-dead cat.

I mean Vlautin's a champ, knowing how to gross out his paying customers; knowing exactly how to bloody up what could otherwise have been a rather good story of the so-called free.

--- Pamela Wylie
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