Gerhard's Reviews > Lean On Pete

Lean On Pete by Willy Vlautin
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When I read Willy Vlautin's debut novel "The Motel Life" a while ago, I was so taken with the way he was able to use his stripped-down prose to evoke tremendously powerful feelings of empathy with his characters, that I immediately promised myself more encounters with his books in the near future. So when I stumbled across his third novel "Lean on Pete", I was literally chomping at the bit to get out of the starting gates (in a story with horseracing as an integral part of the action, the pun is most definitely intended!) Although all the elements that I had come to expect from my sole reading of Vlautin were abundantly present -- from the ultra realistic dialogue to the compassionate rendering of figures marching to a different drummer out there on the inhospitable periphery of society -- I was not really able to connect woth the novel on the same intense level that made of "The Motel Life" such an exhilirating read.

At the start of the novel, young fifteen-year-old protagonist Charley Thompson and his dad are new arrivals in Portland, Oregon. The father -- a forklift operator -- had been disenchanted with his situation in Spokane, Washington, resulting in a decision to move south in search of greener pastures. Charley's mother has not been in the picture for many years. Although a good relationship of sorts seems to be in place between Charley and his dad, the boy is more often than not left to his own devices -- on occasion having to fend for himself when it comes to issues of basic surviving such as the provision of food. The father is not a heartless brute by a long chalk: when he's home he will provide Charley with money and show an interest in his general well-being. But then he plunges back into his world of swing and graveyard shifts and womanizing, and simply stays away for days at a time. Vlautin hints at previous instances of drug consumption and casual sex. Currently the father is involved in a liaison with Lynn, a secretary at the firm where he works. Lynn is estranged from her Samoan husband, and this state of affairs will be instrumental in steering Charley's life in a totally unexpected direction.

On one of his runs around the neighborhood -- Charley has hopes of getting onto a football team when school resumes in August and until practices start he tries to keep in shape -- he comes across the Portland Meadows Race Track. There he meets the disgruntled trainer Del Montgomery and starts working for him as a trainee groom. From then on, his life becomes inextricably linked to the race track. Charley is particularly attracted to Lean on Pete, one of Del's many horses, and over time he forms an strong bond with the animal. After a change occurs in Charley's domestic circumstances, he is more or less dependent on himself for his survival, with Dell proving to be a volatile employer and very irregular in his payment of Charley's wages. When Lean on Pete starts showing signs of a degenerative disease of the feet, the future does not look very promising for the horse. When it begins to dawn on Charley that a worthless horse is a dead loss to a man like Del Montgomery, he begins to formulate a plan to resue Lean on Pete from an ignominious end in a Mexican slaughter-house.

Vlautin does a very credible job in fleshing out Charley Thompson's character. I admired the way in which this resourceful young man nearly always rises to the occasion, no matter how bleak the situation he finds himself in. And make no mistake -- some of it is very grim indeed as Vlautin conjures up a plethora of disagreeable figures to cross Charley's path. And the author does not hesitate to show the young man's more vulnerable side. When everything conspires to bring him down, he does what any half-grown boy would do: he finds an outlet in tears. This has the effect of making Charley even more likeable than he already is. Vlautin has Charley telling many things concerning his past life to Lean on Pete in some movingly confidential conversations he has with the horse -- a very useful device that allows the reader to gain more insight into Charley's background.

This is very much the Vlautin recipe as before, but maybe slightly muted here. I really wish that I could have liked it more than I ended up doing. Still, worth reading for the author's lean prose and the picture he paints of an America a few steps removed from the one normally depicted.
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Reading Progress

April 30, 2017 – Shelved
April 30, 2017 – Shelved as: to-read
May 24, 2017 – Started Reading
May 29, 2017 – Finished Reading

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