by Willy Vlautin
Willy Vlautin is the singer and main songwriter of the band Ricmond Fontaine. Who I have never heard of before. But this novel comes with a CD, an original soundtrack recorded by him and Paul Brainard which I thought was rather lovely. I have included the first track so you can listen along as you read this review of the novel. (I quite like this idea and might try it again in the future)
Willy Vlautin and Paul Brainard - Northline Main Theme
Alison Johnson is a young woman who has lost her way. Not only is she trapped in a cycle of violence with her racist boyfriend Jimmy Bodie but she struggles with alcohol, having a habit of passing out at parties (on one occasion like this Jimmy locks her in the trunk of his car and leaves her there all night). Finally she plucks up the courage to leave him and Las Vegas and flees to Reno. It turns out that she is also fleeing something else, a trauma from when she was younger which has left her vulnerable and in the damaged state we find her. She finds solace in the films of Paul Newman, conducting imaginary conversations with him in her darker moments to help lift her out of them. She explains one important scene to a work colleague from Fort Apache, The Bronx where he falls in love with a nurse ('she's a junkie... but she's a good person, she's just had a hard life'):
There's this scene where the nurse and him are together, and she's really exhausted so he makes her a bath. He puts bubbles in it and shakes the water so the bubbles get extra bubbly and he sits with her while she lays in the water. It's hard to explain, but it just kills me.
In Reno there is something she has to deal with first; her pregnancy. She decides to allow her baby to be adopted and saves the stipend she receives from the prospective parents to help begin a new life. She gets a job and through this meets people who through their small acts of kindness show her that a new life is possible. Circling menacingly is the prospect of Jimmy finding her again as he explains in a letter:
I've decided I really am gonna be moving North. Like I always wanted. Just draw a line and go. A Northline. The farther north, the better. Away from everyone...I figure the farther North you go, the better it'll be. A place saner and normal. Simpler.
But with help from those she meets and one man in particular we hope that she can finally lay some of the ghosts from her past to rest.
Vlautin writes with great humanity about these people living on the margins of society, those that inhabit the dive bars, work the graveyard shift. His supporting cast of characters are brilliantly drawn. It reminded me of reading Denis Johnson's Angels which inhabits a similar area, although in a much darker vein. Having such a passive heroine in Alison can make her feel like an empty vessel at times, but as the book develops we see the various traumas that have left her that way, her personality dampened by experience, and it is the prospect of it being reawakened that invokes our empathy and hope.