One should never meet an artist whose work one admires; the artist is always so much less than the work.
—HENRI DE TOULOUSE-LAUTREC
Friday evening at WORD, a splendid little bookstore in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, Deb and I attended a reading by Willy Vlautin, whose first two novels, The Motel Life and Northline, are two of the best books I've read in years. In a blurb advertising the event, Time Out New York called Northline a "bleak novel... about a pregnant woman who, in moments of deep trauma, speaks with her idol, Paul Newman." Reducing the book to these two plot points is as wrongheaded as describing John Ford's The Grapes of Wrath as a "road movie about a family that can't get work."
In between playing a couple of songs on his guitar (he's also the lead singer of Richmond Fontaine, a fine band that's been around since '94 and have ten or so CDs to their name), Vlautin read a passage from Northline, introducing it as a "story about weakness, about the bad things you do when you're feeling weak, the sideways moves you do. You get out of one bad situation and you feel good that you've made a brave step. But then you're so worn out that you end up making the same exact mistake."
Both of Vlautin's books are in the literary tradition of Raymond Carver and Charles Bukowski. His spartan prose perfectly reflects the people about whom he writes: spare on the surface but ultimately strong enough to bear up under the lives they have made for themselves. Readers, like Vlautin's own characters, may be surprised to discover just how strong.
After the reading, we had an opportunity to meet Vlautin and have him sign our copies of his books. He and I both spent a chunk of our lives working in trucking out West (we were employed by competing companies), and we spent a few minutes talking about Reno and Portland and Salt Lake, about the Nugget Casino, and a legendary hamburger called the "Awful Awful." Deb and I left the bookstore with the feeling that—Toulouse-Lautrec be damned—Vlautin in person appeared to be as genuine and wryly funny as Vlautin the writer. It was a good night.
Willy Vlautin reads from Northline.