Willy Vlautin stands as the narrative champion of the everyman. The Free wrestles with problems facing every day US citizens with grace and understanding. Tackling such grand themes as under-employment, healthcare costs and the rising cost of living, The Free tells the story of a group of characters, all with their own social, personal and economic issues.
Leroy Kervin is an Iraq vet who returns to the states, his body and mind broken. Freddie is a separated father of two, working two jobs to pay off his double mortgaged house and his daughter’s extravagant healthcare bills. Pauline is a big-hearted nurse with aspirations, and a painful relationship in her past who is left to care for her mentally ill father who can’t hold a job.
Vlautin’s prose is beautiful, and his language is heartfelt and to the point. He gives his characters a voice and personality, and where this novel shines is its interactions between characters. Vlautin is let down however by his more general characterisation. I wasn’t invested in the characters, I didn’t feel like I knew them, they had no sense of history or motivation other than to get through the day to day slog, and therefore essentially just to get through the plot, and I found that I really didn’t care about them all that much. Many of the protagonists came across as weak rather than pitiable, which made me cease to identify with them. I was detached from the narrative, which meant that the artistry of Vlautin’s prose was lost to shallow character and plot development.
The narrative itself I found un-engaging. There were elements through the story which were too reminiscent of other cultural references which simply invited comparison, comparisons which did not work in Vlautin’s favour. Leroy spends much of the narrative in a comatose dream state, and we learn about him through sci-fi dream sequences reminiscent of a Margaret Atwood novel, or the film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Pauline’s story arc and relationship with her father smacked of Laura Linney’s character in the film Love Actually. Despite this, nothing much happens in the narrative of The Free. As an example of a snapshot of everyday life, it was perfectly rendered. But to read it was, to put it bluntly, boring.
At times I felt the book needed to decide what it wanted to be. The sci-fi elements of Leroy’s dreams (himself a sci-fi buff, hence the decision to make them so themed) felt out of place and unnecessary. Vlautin excels at narrating the mundane, but he is certainly no sci-fi writer. Certain elements were too abstract, other elements too simple, and he failed to strike the balance needed to really make these sequences effective
I can certainly appreciate the artistry in Willy Vlautin’s The Free, but it is not a book that I enjoyed. I found it dull, uninspired, with a subject matter which was not presented in an engaging way. It was incredibly well written, but ultimately not my cup of tea.