‘The Night Always Comes’ — the first of our two Books of the Month for June — seals Willy Vlautin’s status as America’s greatest living chronicler of the dispossessed, writes Benjamin Myers.
There exists two United States Of America. The first is based upon the idea of ‘the dream’, in which an individual can achieve anything they want in life regardless of their race, religion, gender or sexuality so long as they are prepared to work hard enough to achieve it. The dream suggests that the playing field is level. Even a humble peanut farmer like Jimmy Carter or a regular teenage slumlord millionaire such as Donald Trump can make it to the top table.
This version was created and perpetuated by advertising men, realtors, Walt Disney, soft drinks salesmen, preachers, production companies, tobacco-peddlers, sports coaches, chat show hosts, lobbyists, Ronald McDonald, reality TV stars, crass songwriters and politicians.
The second is based upon something far less ethereal than a dream: concrete reality. In this version of the United States of America an individual can hold down three jobs and still never hope to own their own home. If they get ill, they’ll hit by a huge medical bill. If they have psychological or health problems, they’ll be given pills, and when the pills suddenly run out, they’ll be forced to source their own. The most affordable food is of the poorest quality and in just a half century or so has created an obesity epidemic. Beer, cigarettes and drugs both legal and illegal provide brief pleasures, television also.
In this version of the United States of America people pay rent for sub-standard properties, and when they can’t pay rent, they sleep in tents. Anyone born poor, working class or of colour will have to fight twice as hard, and those who step out of line face the real prospect of hard jail time (a quarter of the world’s imprisoned are beyond bars in the United States of America). Moral corruption and mindless exploitation are rife. Someone is always out to fuck someone else over, or step over a sleeping body on the pavement. Guns often settle disputes.
This is ‘the nightmare’, though the advertising men, realtors, soft drinks salesmen and so on rarely name it so.
Yet still people believe in ‘the dream’ nonetheless. They are born into the idea of it, conditioned to swear allegiance to it on a daily basis. They strive.
It is this America that Willy Vlautin has explored in fine detail over the course of six consistently powerful novels, each of which has documented the struggle of the individual – from care home workers to neglected adolescents to alcoholics to people such as Lynette, whose attempts to save money to buy the Portland family home sit at the centre of The Night Always Comes. The imbalance, unfairness – and, ultimately, the impossibility – of the housing market is the prevailing theme here, but it is through the spirit-crushing, day-to-day drudgery of simply trying to stay afloat in America that Vlautin animates his characters, elevating Lynette (or, for example, solitary mixed-race boxer Horace in 2018’s Don’t Skip Out On Me or Charley in 2010’s Lean On Pete) to saint-like status.
Her struggles are real, and over the course of a hellish two-night descent into Portland’s hinterland, she encounters two-bit criminals, gas-huffing maniacs, sadistic yuppies, shallow coke-sniffing associates, and more duplicitous men than anyone should have to suffer. Circumstance has forced her to have sex with some of them for money, but Lynette is not simply a prostitute as no woman is simply a prostitute – she also cares for her mute adult brother Kenny, is a student, a bartender, and an individual with a sound code of ethics whose only aim is to have somewhere to settle. She is a tirelessly hard worker, just as the dream demands. The anger of her adolescence which lead to her running away and which has destroyed the only good relationship she ever had is now under control, yet for Lynette – as with so many dealt an unfair hand in life – America is a battlefield on which only the most ruthless or quickest-thinking strategists survive. Ultimately, hard work has little to do with it.
Because everyone in The Night Always Comes has been let down; Lynette by her benumbed mother, who has reneged on their deal to buy their house together (and before that let a sexual predator boyfriend attempt to force himself upon her young daughter), her brother Kenny by his mother and arguably the state, and a passing parade of characters who rail against everything they see as wrong about the states of things today, while mindlessly inflicting their own misery upon others.
This America is a cold and lonely place of weak diner coffee, neon signage smeared across the windscreen by barely-functioning wipers, seedy basements and people who populate the far reaches of car wrecking yards. Here daylight, like hope, is fading.
But hope is key to Vlautin’s work. He has the heart and conscience of a moralist, and as such all his protagonists are saintly because they are always better than those who oppose them, and in them glimmers of light shine through. Rarely can a writer make a reader feel so emotionally invested in these people whose mundane lives we step into. The comparison to John Steinbeck has been made many times before, and though Willy Vlautin is a different writer, he too depicts the flipside to the dream. A century after Steinbeck and the situation down at the bottom has worsened. His isn’t the ‘other America’, it is the real America. The rusted, rapidly-corroding reality. The dream gone sour.
The Night Always Comes seals Vlautin’s status as perhaps America’s greatest active living chronicler of the dispossessed, but also the strength of the human spirit that endures, despite everything.
‘The Night Always Comes’ is published tomorrow by Faber & Faber. Order your copy here (£12.99).
Benjamin Myers’ latest book ‘Male Tears’ is out now, published by Bloomsbury.