Declan Ryan assesses the latest literary offering from author, musician and songwriter Willy Vlautin.
Matthew Arnold, after abandoning poetry for more dutiful good works, wrote:
It is a sad thing to see a man who has been frittered away piecemeal by petty distractions, and who has never done his best. But it is still sadder to see a man who has done his best, who has reached his utmost limits – and finds his work a failure, and himself far less than he had imagined himself.
If ever there was a sport designed to bring a man to his ‘utmost limits’ and then show him that he is ‘far less than he had imagined’, it’s boxing. Horace Hopper, the protagonist of Willy Vlautin’s new novel Don’t Skip Out On Me, is an aspiring boxer; he’s also an aspiring Mexican, despite his being – in truth – half Paiute, a little Irish, fully Nevadan. Mexicans are holy for Horace, synonymous with brave all-action fighting, and the pictures he’s torn out of Ring magazine for his bedroom wall are the nearest thing he has to a theology. That, and a self-help book he picked up as a teenager staying with his grandmother, before coming to work at the ranch owned by the benevolent Reeses, which talks about having to build your own boat, brick by brick, if you want to be a champion.
Horace wants to be a champion. In order to do so he convinces himself he has to leave the ranch, which is the only comfort and stability he’s ever known, and head out of state where he can re-invent himself as Hector Hidalgo. He looks Mexican anyway, so he figures that he might as well be Mexican, not least because there aren’t any Paiute fighters worth a damn. His dedication to this unlikely dream manifests itself in several touching ways. He ceremonially destroys the heavy metal CDs that accompanied his trips into the hills to check on the increasingly deranged Pedro, hired by Mr Reese to keep an eye on the sheep but now going peculiar. He tries to cut out soda and junk food, not always successfully. He jogs and cuts himself off from most of daily life: deprivation dressed up as Spartan choice, out back of his aunt’s house, huddled by the air-con in the searing heat for something like comfort.
While the story of Horace’s attempt to become a professional boxer drives the narrative, at heart this is a parable of sorts; a sensitive, insightful study of loneliness and how hard it is to live through the sacrifices needed to discover your utmost limits, as well as how much it hurts to do so – in easy-to-hit Horace’s case, physically as much as psychically. In their own ways, all the characters are paralysed by isolation, from Pedro stuck out on the hills with only sheep and dogs for company to Mr Reese, drifting towards a purposeless retirement and cocooned by his wife’s unwillingness to leave the house.
They’re all trapped by habit too, by a lack of options – whether due to a deluded determination to be great, or an incapacity for change after so many years of doing the same thing. For all the bad luck, the cruel twists of fate, one of the book’s great achievements is its lack of bitterness, its capacity for optimism. In one of its most moving moments, Mr Reese tells Horace about having to abandon his own dreams, a life by the ocean, when his father died and the ranch needed tending: “You have to try and get what you need to get by in life. It makes you a better person to try. I got a chance and it didn’t quite work, but it almost worked. It was close to working.”
This could be a summary for the atmosphere of the book; the near-miss not regretted and the dignity of the attempt. As well as a novel about the violence of loneliness, there are subtle nods towards America’s recent lurch into isolationism, barbarity and selfishness, if only by presenting their counterpoint. Both Horace and Mr Reese are bruised, luckless and terminally disappointed, but they are capable of great kindness, hard-wired with a sense that one should help a person out who’s worse off, even if you can barely spare the help, and that identity isn’t something to be labelled, but enacted: “What you don’t understand, Horace, is you don’t have to be one thing. You can take all the best things that you are and be them.”
Horace’s tragedy isn’t just that he feels tied to an old, unwanted self, however hard he attempts to be Hector Hidalgo – a Mexican warrior with custom-made shorts – it’s having to do it all on his own, having no one to turn to for advice. With no connections he’s exploitable and unworldly, his boat mantra plucked, we discover, from ‘a self-published book by some guy in Florida’. Worst of all, having told the Reeses of his outlandish plans for years before trying to make them happen, his pride means he can’t go back as anything less than a champion, however much he might want to. There’s a more-than-ordinary tenderness in this novel, where love is ‘a good kind of force’ and the characters aren’t perfect, but trying.
Don’t Skip Out On Me by Willy Vlautin (Faber & Faber, paperback, 304 pages) is out now and available here, priced £14.99.