Sunday 17 February 2019


Don't Skip Out On Me

Don’t Skip Out On Me (US) is a story. It’s lots of stories. It’s lots of stories about lots of people who are just getting by living their lives. They’re stories that will be familiar to everyone who ever grew up or moved on or got old, and may be just as familiar to anyone who did none of those things.

The novel focuses on two main characters.

Horace Hooper is a farm hand who handles horses and dogs with a confidence he can’t quite manage with other people. His dream is to become a boxing world champion, which means he needs to move on from the world in which he’s comfortable. Part Irish, part Paiute, he’s keen to shed both of those identities and wants to be known as a Mexican. He has the looks to get away with that ambition, but his poor understanding of Spanish, his dislike of spicy food and his aversion to extreme heat prove to be something of a hindrance.  In his favour, he possesses a number of assets in relation to his boxing dreams. He can hit hard as hell and he can take as many punches as any opponent can throw. With a fair wind and a good trainer, he has the potential to go far. This being a Willy Vlautin book, the hard edge of reality isn’t going to make that easy. Finding a trainer who’s not out to make a buck is a tough job, as is entering the boxing world without any reputation to fall back upon. 

While Horace struggles to make it through the early stages of turning pro, his mentor in life and father figure (Mr Reese) continues to try and keep the farm going without its star man. Horace’s departure has sent ripples through everything. The dynamics between workers and between Mr and Mrs Reese are all shot. Joy has left the world and the notion of struggling to simply carry on isn’t an attractive option. Thankfully, Mr Reese has experience in spades. He’s one of those rare wise characters in fiction that actually makes sense. His own thoughts on how to live a life are more powerful even than the philosophies Horace has crafted from an old book he once found. As their worlds weave together and fray, the old man’s patience and words seem destined to help out the young pretender and the further the story goes on, the more I was rooting for Horace to pay heed.

Don’t Skip Out On Me is a superb read. It generated the kind of awe and wonder that rarely catch me these days, the sort that leaves most of us when we stop believing in such things as Santa, fairy tales and happy endings. 

I’m going to say it’s a boxing story and, like the best of the genre, it’s far much more besides. The pace of the read is generally slow and thoughtful, though it ramps up when Horace enters the ring. For a boxing tale, this one did something unusual - had me hoping the protagonist might lose a fight and have his dreams killed. The journey he faces on and off the canvas is so difficult to observe that I found it impossible to remove my eyes and could hardly bear to watch.

What I think Vlautin does is this. I think he manages to fill your heart up with warmth and life while at the same time he’s breaking that same heart and emptying it of everything. That’s the constant of the book for me, the experience of having these two actions in balance at the same time.

As in all balancing acts, things can’t stay in equilibrium forever. In the end, either the happiness or the sadness is going to tilt the scale. I won’t say which way it tips in this case, I’ll just tell you that when you finish your journey, you’ll have white knuckles and a realisation that you actually need to draw breath before you pass out. 

Bottom line is I loved this. A real kind of love. The kind Horace may have found in the back of the cinema while the sun burned outside. If you’ve read a Vlautin before, you’ll have a good idea of what I mean. If you haven’t, then it’s time to do something about it.

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