Sunday 15 December 2013


After reading Lean On Pete a short while ago, I had to get another shot of Willy Vlautin.

This fix came with the title Northline and it got straight into my nervous system in the same way that happened with Pete.

Allison has a drink problem and that’s the least of her worries. She has a drink problem to help her to cope with the world (‘She’d calm down first. Calm down as much as the $17.70 in her wallet would let her, and then she’d decide where to go.’) and has picked up a boyfriend who really needs locking up. The boyfriend is a neo-nazi who has very faint shades of liberal sensibilities. He does speed, booze, violence and bully really well. Needless to say, he doesn’t do boyfriend so good. Sadly, his sperm works and Allison runs away to escape her life and her man and to face up to her pregnancy and her demons.

As she settles down in Reno, she meets some great people. There’s her new boss and the crowd at the diner at which she works. They treat her well and allow her to mess up from time-to-time. This is the Karma Allison deserves – she’s kind to folk and makes sure she does her good turns when she thinks nobody’s looking.

It’s a tremendous book. Full of power and emotion. I read it very quickly as it had me in its grip, but I did need to put it down at intervals to catch my breath and to avoid crying in public (seriously). The stories of Allison’s life are gently told, but relay the most brutal experiences and despair. It’s completely painful at points and very challenging, yet there’s always the tiny slither of hope that Vlautin manages to weave in through the work.

There are some wonderful conversations and images that demonstrate pain. Here’s a little interaction between Allison and a customer of hers:

‘ “I have the worst thoughts. I always thing I’m going to get run over by a bus or murdered. That I’ll get a terrible disease or go to jail forever. And the crazy thing is that when I think those thoughts, sometimes it makes me happy. I don’t know if happy is the right word. Maybe relieved. I don’t know. But she [my sister] doesn’t have thoughts like that.”

“I get thoughts like that. Everyone does. I think. Maybe it takes the pressure off. If something like that happened, then you’d be done. You wouldn’t have to try anymore.” ‘

Other than the alcohol, Alison has a number of other coping mechanisms. One of them’s self-harm. Another is the writing of letters to herself, which she immediately destroys. Another is to talk to Paul Newman.

Newman appears to her in the way that Bogart comes to Woody Allen in Play It Again Sam. He’s a friend, confidant and advisor. When this first happened in the book, I was taken aback, but was able to go with the flow. I did wonder about the need for him. Whether this tool worked for the story or not. As it went on and the appearances were explained, I was just glad he was there; it made complete sense.

Reading and recommending this book are other things that make sense. No doubt about it. Willy Vlautin’s a bright star in the sky. Long may he shine. He makes me feel like I've been through a mincer and come out in bits with a smile on my face.


  1. So glad you enjoyed Northline, Nigel. It's a hell of a book.

    1. I'm looking forward to the next ones - I just hope he writes quickly and gets more out there.