Past tense

Willie Vlautin signed books at a recent event at Sundance Bookstore.

Willie Vlautin signed books at a recent event at Sundance Bookstore.

“My yesterdays walk with me. They keep step, they are gray faces that peer over my shoulder.”

There is no albatross that hangs as heavily as the past. The present steps aside without argument to let it by. The future genuflects to its influence. Events long passed can elevate us, or they can let us slip, irreverently, from their hands and onto the hard floor of experience. Fragile people tend to shatter there, but a fortunate few rebound unaccountably.

In his most recent novel, Northline, former Renoite Willy Vlautin has authored the circumstances and outcome of such a fall, wherein the protagonist is broken, but reassembled as a compellingly imperfect creation.

Allison Johnson comes from a decent family, but they are not traditional—an alcoholic mother who nevertheless gives a shit, a loving but errant younger sister, and a father best not spoken of. For her own part, Allison is young, vice-ridden, and inclined toward making ill-informed life decisions. By the time she flees Las Vegas and settles in Reno, she is already uncomfortably familiar with the sensations of her first pregnancy.

Nursing painfully raw nerves and a chronically shallow sense of self-worth, she leaves her family and her boyfriend, Jimmy, behind in southern Nevada. Actor Paul Newman travels with her, appearing frequently as a guardian angel/imaginary friend, as Allison heads for a place where she feels it is possible to curb the downward slope of her jilted luck and to lighten the bleak future of the child she expects.

Allison’s progress as a human being, not just as a woman, is the driving force of the book, making her sex—and that of the author—almost irrelevant.

“Initially, I think I just heard a person. I kind of forgot that she was a woman,” said Vlautin. “The only thing I made sure to do was to not make her my dream girl. I’d read other writers who did just that, and it bothered me.”

A lot bothered Vlautin while he was writing this book. The experience of embedding himself in the life of his main character was both cathartic and straining.

“I was writing that book so I didn’t go crazy. It was a book I wrote to get that era of my life out of my system. I’ve known a lot of women who have gotten themselves into jams like that. You pay the price for being weak. I tried to give her an easier life,” said Vlautin.

Allison does not have an easy life, and Vlautin handles her carefully, out of human empathy. Northline is artfully unvarnished and significant, flush with dialogue that asks for no less than entrenchment on the part of the reader.

The first U.S. printing of the book includes a soundtrack composed and performed by Vlautin, with his Richmond Fontaine bandmate Paul Brainard backing him up on pedal steel guitar. The instrumental songs brilliantly suit the mood of the novel.

“The book took a lot out of me, so I took breaks with the guitar. Before I knew it, I had a lot of songs that felt like the heart of the book,” said Vlautin.

Northline, the second published novel by Willy Vlautin, offers an auricular and scriptural meditation on both the solaces and private despairs found in Western spaces.