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If you don’t know who Willy Vlautin is, you should

Vlautin is one of literature’s greats: so why is he still not a big-hitter in contemporary American fiction?

Over four previous novels Willy Vlautin has quietly crafted a body of work a world away from the perceived big-hitters of contemporary American fiction. Yet any one of his books offers as valuable an insight into the day-to-day grind of existence in a country whose dream has long turned sour as anything published this century.

In small scenarios he tackles big themes such as loss and loneliness, almost always against backgrounds of transience, poverty and the endless battle of simply getting by. His characters are not restless wanderers, but rather survivors questing towards the chance of a better life. Their situations are harsh but, crucially, never entirely devoid of hope. Vlautin’s debut The Motel Life concerned two brothers on the lam after a tragic hit and run accident, while Lean On Pete (adapted for a forthcoming film by the British director Andrew Haigh) beautifully explored the relationship between a teenage boy and a failing racehorse. As in his songs (as a musician Vlautin is best known for his work with the band Richmond Fontaine) these are lives that pivot on luck or resourcefulness, with reviewers drawing comparisons to Steinbeck and Carver, though I’d stir Denis Johnson, Tom Waits and Bruce Springsteen into the mix too.

Don’t Skip Out On Me tracks the journey of 21-year-old Horace Hopper, a half-Paiute Indian, half-white Nevadan ranch worker who was abandoned as a child to a “a grandmother who drank Coors Light on ice from 11am until she fell asleep on the couch at nine, who chain-smoked cigarettes, who ate only frozen dinners, and who was scared of Indians, blacks and Mexicans”.

Horace is also an aspiring boxer. He finds employment and surrogate love from good-hearted ageing rancher Mr Reese and his housebound wife, who want to gift him their family business, but his ambitions in the ring prove too great. Reasoning that all the best fighters are Mexican he moves to Tucson, Arizona, where he reinvents himself as “Hector Hidalgo” by adopting Hispanic clothes, eating spicy food that he dislikes and finding a Mexican trainer, who rips him off.

Fights come his way, brutal undercard battles in which Horace/Hector takes frequent beatings, but is often saved by his big-punching abilities. Rarely has the aftermath of boxing been so well portrayed: the sobbing in the shower, the reset noses, the constant need for codeine. And the emotional scars too.

For at the core of Don’t Skip Out On Me lies a deep well of existential emptiness that is distinctly American. The expansive mirage of the country – “Texas is just a line in the dirt,” shrugs one character – and the empty promise of consumerism found in drab retail parks and fast food diners amplify the young Horace’s solitude and his slim chances of success. Vlautin is hardly the first to note the overwhelming sadness of a neon sign flickering in the darkness or miles of empty car parks where fields once stood, but his are scenes bathed in pathos. Alone beside a strip mall Hector watches the cars pass by: “Every single person in every single car had a TV, a phone, a bed, and ate chicken and got the runs. How many chickens got killed every day?”

Food features heavily throughout, but it is only ever cheap and functional, consumed for quick gratification and always with a nauseous belched-back aftertaste. Stifling heat plays its part too; the pages of this book almost feel slick with the border states’ sweat. The prose smells of synthetic sugar, salt, frying oil, locker rooms and desperation.

Vlautin is particularly adept at fleeting encounters and sorrowful glimpses that add a Homeric dimension. An immigrant shepherd tending to Mr Reese’s flock has a complete mental collapse high in the mountains. A pregnant woman and her toddler are stranded at a Greyhound bus stop, her diaper bag and the child’s stuffed rabbit continuing the journey without them. When he discovers two teenage stowaways in the back of his truck en route to Mexico, Mr Reese sees that their maltreated dog has worms, an eye infection and an injured paw, and buys it off them for $50. A desperate life is made a little better. Such moments are what elevate Vlautin to literary greatness: he understands the necessity for compassion through small acts of kindness.

Ultimately, Horace’s core strength is engulfed by his overwhelming alienation when he washes up in Las Vegas, the vulgar end-point of America’s briefly glorious boom-time. Vlautin’s characters are the walking wounded yet manage to carry themselves with dignity, and only a reader with a heart of anthracite could be unmoved by their situations. They continue to live on long after Don’t Skip Out On Me has ended in devastating style. 

Don’t Skip Out On Me
Willy Vlautin
Faber & Faber, 304pp, £14.99

Ben Myers’ novels include Pig Iron and Richard, a Sunday Times book of the year. His writing has appeared in The Guardian, NME, Mojo, Time Out, 3:AM Magazine, Caught By The River and many others. www.benmyersmanofletters.blogspot.com

This article first appeared in the 13 March 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Putin’s spy game

Quiz recreates the atmosphere of the Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? studio. Credit: JOHAN PERSSON
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Quiz is a fast-paced, hi-tech retelling of the Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? cheating scandal

This tale of the “coughing major” is a nostalgic romp through the rise of reality television.

As the interval began at James Graham’s new play, Quiz, I turned to my companion and said: “Wow, this is like telly – in a theatre.” (For clarity, this is a compliment.) This fast-paced, hi-tech production tells the story of the “coughing major” Charles Ingram, who won the top prize on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? and then had it taken away again after being accused of cheating.

It provides a nostalgic romp through past ITV shows and the rise of reality television, involves the only audience participation not to make me cringe straight through my seat and into the row behind, and, y’know, also asks whether our memories are so fallible that they are essentially useless, undermining the very nature of truth itself. There’s also a cracking impression of Chris Tarrant.

James Graham is on a roll: last year, the Almeida’s production of his new drama Ink transferred to the West End to the Duke of York, while the theatre next door hosted his original comedy Labour of Love.

The latter, but not the former, won an Olivier Award on 8 April, which is nothing short of a travesty. Labour of Love was a perfectly serviceable romcom ported to a constituency office, but its lighter elements somehow jarred with its ambition to Say Something About The Left. In Ink, on the other hand, the comedy bolstered the play’s moral message rather than undermined it. The play showed how the fun and excitement of the early days of the Sun swelled and distorted until the cheeky smile became a rictus grin; the second half then plunged us into darkness with a grisly murder and the collection of a Faustian bargain.

In Quiz, the comedy performs the same function as it did in Ink: it lulls and seduces the audience, leading them invisibly down a particular path, so they can then be shown how easily they were influenced. The first half is styled as “the case for the prosecution”. We hear that Ingram’s wife Diana and her brother had already appeared on the show, having devised a way to beat the supposedly random selection process. Mrs Ingram had phoned another contestant, college lecturer Tecwen Whittock, whom she vaguely knew, the night before her husband’s second appearance; he was then recorded coughing suspiciously the next day whenever the right multiple choice answer was read out. Hearing all that meant that when we were asked to vote at the interval – using keypads attached to the seats – on Major Ingram’s guilt, the audience delivered an unambiguous verdict: send him down.

Then we discovered that there was another side to the story. Diana Ingram knew Whittock through her brother, so the call could have been innocent; in any case, he claimed to have a dust allergy that made him cough almost uncontrollably. (It would have been like setting up a fiendish conspiracy based around blinking with someone who finds it hard to tolerate contact lenses.)

The hints of disquiet about the manipulative qualities of television present in the first half then bloomed fully with the revelation that the “cough tape” was supplied to the court by the TV company Celador – which gained a million pounds by not paying out the prize, remember. It had been heavily edited, with numerous other “irrelevant” coughs removed. Voting again at the end, a majority would have let Major Ingram walk free. (In real life, the jury were not so swayed; Charles and Diana Ingram and Tecwen Whittock were all found guilty.)

This is one of those productions where everything is just so. The ensemble cast switched neatly between roles; the set design was modern (recreating the bear pit of the Millionaire studio, itself meant to evoke a colosseum); the staging was fluid and surprisingly experimental; and director Daniel Evans extracted larger-than-life comedy performances that teetered on the right side of mugging. The courtroom framing also allowed for quick, shameless exposition dumps. Even better, the flashes of deeper meaning – a reference to the Iraq War’s truth-denying Comical Ali, or the Apprentice-driven presidency of Donald Trump, reality TV’s worst spin-off series – never felt forced.

Evans is artistic director at Chichester Festival Theatre, where this play had a short run last year; he and Graham have tightened and quickened it since then. Like Network at the National Theatre, it forces the audience to think about their own reaction to the play even as they’re watching it – just as the unlikely innovation of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? was to let the contestants see the questions before deciding to play, tormenting them with doubt. As Graham pointed out in an interview, we should always mistrust ourselves: the case is known as the “coughing major” scandal, when the major wasn’t even the one doing the coughing.

Quiz runs until 16 June. quiztheplay.com

Quiz
Noël Coward Theatre, London W1

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She regularly appears on BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and the News Quiz, and BBC1’s Sunday Politics. 

This article first appeared in the 18 April 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Enoch Powell’s revenge