Don’t Skip Out On Me by Willy Vlautin, Faber, 304pp, £14.99
Willy Vlautin first made a name for himself as a cult singer-songwriter with the band Richmond Fontaine. His songs, in that Springsteen-like way, are short stories set to music. So his emergence as a novelist in 2006 marked a logical progression. His books to date have taken his lyrical concerns and amplified them wonderfully.
Don’t Skip Out On Me is Vlautin’s fifth novel and it’s a quiet gem. Horace Hopper, a young man of Native American descent, is living and working on a Nevada ranch with his surrogate parents, the kindly Mr and Mrs Reese. The ranch has fallen on hard times and Horace dreams of leaving to become a world champion boxer – a Mexican fighter just like his heroes, whose pictures adorn the walls of his trailer.
To this end, Horace creates an alter ego for himself, Hector Hidalgo, who he hopes will one day triumph in the ring. Horace leaves the ranch and heads to Tucson, where he gets a job changing tyres and hires the kind of boxing trainer that only paltry money can buy. The book follows this naïve loner through his painful forays into the ring and increasingly difficult moments outside it.
Vlautin’s writing has clear echoes of American greats such Cormac McCarthy and Denis Johnson; Charles Bukowski, too. But there’s a wonderful simplicity to his words and a deep care for his characters that makes his books stand as a distinct body of work.
Horace, in all his decency and loneliness, is impossible not to root for, even if at times you want to scream at him, to tell him to take a different road. Ultimately, this is a novel about how the failure to achieve our big dreams can obscure the small achievements and connections we make in our lives. It’s beautifully written and heartbreakingly sad.