Saturday 19 October 2013


There are books that I can’t really fully explain in terms of why they were so enjoyable or had such an impact. ‘Lean On Pete’(US) is one of them. I’m going to try and unpick that for myself in this here in this review.

The work seems really simple in the structure as a whole and in the clean style of writing, yet the impact it had on me was far more powerful than this simplicity might normally allow.

Before the novel begins, there’s a quote from John Steinbeck:

‘It is true that we are weak and sick and ugly and quarrelsome but if that is all we ever were, we would millenniums ago have disappeared from the face of the earth.’

I mention this because it has been perfectly selected for a book that reflects something of that tone all the way through.

Charley Thompson has grown up in a single-parent family with his father at the helm. His father, a loving and kind one in many ways, is unreliable, unpredictable and liable to leave Charlie for days on end to fend for himself. This leaves Charley with the TV and the movie screen for company, cans of food to eat and a desire to run and keep fit so that he can keep alive his hopes of playing football. Football seems to allow Charley to feel part of something bigger than himself. To provide him with a family that works together. It’s important.

This immediately resonates and creates emotional waves. As human adults need sex, shelter and food to exist and surely human children need food, shelter, companionship and nurturing to survive; because Charley has been stripped of some of these, it’s impossible not to feel for him from the outset.

As he moves through the days, he stumbles into a job at the track working for a shady trainer and his horses. Of the horses, it’s Lean 
On Pete who captures Charley’s affections and it’s not long before 
Charley and Pete take off on a trip across country to Wyoming where there might at last be a haven for them.

As they go, Pete absorbs Charley's feelings for his father. Protects him from the pain through some kind of magical transference. The horse becomes the surrogate - friend, companion, father, mother, purpose and child.

I really don’t want to give away anything about the story in the hope that you’ll go and find out for yourself. I think you’ll thoroughly enjoy it, whoever you are.

Rolled up in this adventure are many scenes that would work as self-contained pieces. When put together, there’s a real sense of movement and hugely conflicting measures of hope and despair; it’s that ever-tipping balance between these two that offers the story its energy and had me completely captured as a reader. Like that quote in the beginning suggests, there’s good and bad in everyone and there’s enough of the latter to keep the species going. People react to Charley and his situation in many ways. There are the randomly generous, the needy, those who switch from generosity to bitterness without warning, the slippery and the aggressive. All of them are human and many of them are living in situations that all-too-often the media and those in power either have forgotten about or are busily sweeping under the carpet.

Charley is no exception to the rule of good and bad. He’s a survivor, whether he knows it or not. He’s learned enough from his father and from his time surviving alone to get by. In order to do so, he has to turn to crime and violence. One of the things I loved about the piece is how much I excused all of these acts in Charley because of his needs, whether to eat or to defend himself. That shows the power of the writing for me. There’s also one moment when he’s acting purely out of pride and from anger and I know that if I’d been in his position I’d have done the same, so I was still on side even then. In fact, the blur between good and bad goes far enough to remind that these are relative terms in themselves and will be defined differently by every nation, culture and individual (and that’s impressive in a book).

Half way through, I started to worry for the ending. I was hoping all the way that everything would finish with a scent of roses and Charley and Lean On Pete would live forever on the Big Rock Candy Mountain. That tore me. Much as I wanted it to be so, I couldn’t bear the idea that such an epic book might turn out to be a mushy fairy story. The hard edges of life and of Charley’s existence, even though they’d been handled with subtlety and dexterity, couldn’t allow for such a shiny finish. Thankfully, and it can’t have been an easy job, Vlautin’s denouement is superb, capturing something of the bitter sweet conflict of the whole book.

I also had a wonderful occurrence with this story that doesn’t happen often. I’d be walking in the countryside or washing or cooking and I’d catch myself wondering how Pete and Charley were doing. I’d picture them on the road, getting by and enjoy the moments of their safety while worrying for them all the while.

To summarise, I loved the book and am extremely grateful to the friend who recommended it for doing so. It has a real power and a stunning sense of reality that makes me want to be more observant and more generous in the world.

I’ve also bought the previous 2 novels by Vlautin and I’ll be picking up the next as soon as it’s out early next year.



  1. Great review; you're spot on, Nigel. There is just something so powerful and moving in Willy Vlautin's spare prose. He manages to break my heart every time.

  2. Totally agree with your summary of the book and of the quality of the writing.Quite simply, I cared for Charley from the very first page and for many weeks after the final page. Its a rare talent he has

  3. Yes, I’ve read them all, several times. I almost never read a book more than once, but I just can’t shake these off. I’m sure you’ll enjoy both Northline and The Motel Life.