On the Road

Richmond Fontaine make some the most expansive, richly textured alt. country around right now, but at the heart of their music are the powerful narratives of Willy Vlautin’s lyrics. Their most recent album Thirteen Cities includes tales about marginalised working class folk struggling to make ends meet. The earlier Post to Wire features several spoken word postcards that work like snapshots of a tragic story and deliver a sucker-punch to your gut as much for what they don’t say as what they do.

It makes sense that Vlautin would eventually write fiction. I’ve just finished reading his eloquent yet down-to-earth novels, The Motel Life and Northline. Both are character-driven and spare in style much like the music he makes. The protagonists are ordinary people who’ve made bad choices as much out of dire circumstance than anything and who struggle with the day-to-day. The Motel Life’s brothers Frank and Jerry Lee lost their mother young and have struggled to get a foot on the ladder since, working menial jobs and drinking to get through the day. When Jerry Lee kills a young kid in a hit and run, they decide to hit the road. As Frank puts it early on in the novel:

Bad luck, it falls on people every day. It’s one of the only certain truths. It’s always on deck, it’s always just waiting. The worst thing, the thing that scares me the most is that you never know when it’s going to hit… And us, we took the bad luck and strapped it around our feet like concrete. We did the worst imaginable thing you could do. We ran away.

Northline’s Allison Johnson, down on herself, descending into alcoholism and pregnant by her abusive, speed freak boyfriend, decides to leave Vegas and head to Reno to make a new life for herself. It’s rare to find a male author writing about a woman so sympathetically.

What as unites both novels is a real sense of place – you gain an understanding of Reno as a town that’s a faded facsimile of Las Vegas, its Casinos and bars are worn out, much like the people who frequent them. Tied to this there’s also the idea that even when you try to leave a place to escape your troubles, they catch up with you sooner or later. You either face them and make a go of life, or you give up.

There’s a wonderful sense of hope that comes from small, personal moments, even when the characters are going through the hardest times. The childishly over-the-top adventure stories that Frank tells his brother to cheer him up; the older, sympathetic characters who offer a helping hand and the imaginary conversations Allison has with Paul Newman, who reassures her that she’s able to take hold of her life and do better. There’s a great deal of humour in many of these moments too.

Ultimately, Vlautin’s characters are a celebration of the essential goodness of humanity – they may fuck up and make huge mistakes, but they are people of worth and deserving of happiness. As with his songs, there’s authenticity to these words, they come from someone who has seen and lived through hard times.

Northline comes with a soundtrack by Vlautin and Richmond Fontaine’s Paul Brainard; minimal guitar and pedal steel compositions that mirror the melancholy beauty of the novel’s prose.

Here’s Willy reading an extract of Northline, backed by one of the pieces from the soundtrack (visuals by Brad Beenders).

This podcast, with Willy talking at length about the inspiration behind Northline and his writing process is illuminating, even if its hosts sound like robots (via HarperPerennial).

MP3: Richmond Fontaine – Various Songs (via MySpace)

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