Book 5: Lean on Pete by Willy Vlautin
I have never feared for a character’s safety as much as I did for15-year-old Charley Thompson, the protagonist of Willy Vlautin’s Lean on Pete.
Vlautin, a singer and songwriter as well as a novelist, came to my attention after reading something somewhere in which George Pelecanos talked about how much he liked Vlautin’s writing, especially this novel.
Pelecanos is right. Vlautin's something special.
In its structure, Lean On Pete borrows from classic stories in which the main character must embark on a perilous journey. The character will face many tests en route – tests of courage and strength and moral fidelity – but will find safety and happiness if he successfully reaches his destination.
Charley is orphaned, and left homeless, midway through the novel. His mother apparently deserted the family when Charley was an infant. His dad does his best, but he’s clearly a man overwhelmed by familial responsibilities, including the need to keep a job, food in the fridge and to be home each night.
Charley and his father have just moved to Portland when the novel opens. Although we never know why, the move is clearly driven more by his father's need to flee his past life than to any attractions Portland might hold.
A poor choice of a new girlfriend leads to the death of Charley’s dad.
Charley gets by – he is a resourceful lad – picking up a few dollars working for a horse breeder at a nearby track. The track becomes a temporary home, but when Lean On Pete, a race horse in Charley’s care, is destined to be shipped to Mexico to be turned into dog food, Charley kidnaps Pete and sets off from Portland to Wyoming to find his aunt.
Everyone Charley meets is a potential threat. Some of those threats are very real. On his journey, Charley is beaten and robbed. There is an unspoken, but genuine fear, that he may become sexual prey or idly murdered. That Charley finds the occasional individual willing to give him a ride, a meal, a few bucks or the promise of a job comes almost as a surprise.
Lean On Pete works because of Charley Thompson. Simply put, he’s a good kid. Willing to shovel the manure from a horse stall for the promise of a few bucks or wash the dishes after a rare sit-down dinner. Charley’s needs are few. He wants to go to school and play football, he wants to know there’s going to be food on the table (like every 15-year-old boy he’s always hungry) and a warm bed at night.
Finally, he wants someone to love and who will love him in turn.
Charley’s travels, from Portland to Wyoming, isn’t Homeric in scale, but his journey into the cusp of manhood is just that. Vlautin’s novel is an epic tale of a perilous journey toward wisdom and integrity and love.