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July 30, 2010

Book Notes - Willy Vlautin ("Lean on Pete")

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Lean on Pete is Willy Vlautin's second novel. The book follows 15 year-old Charlie Thompson as he struggles to survive after his father is killed. Both Charlie and the people he encounter are vivid yet relatable characters, and Vlautin's matter of fact storytelling perfectly paces the book.

Lean on Pete is a gritty, yet classic, American road novel.

For a couple of years, the blog Syntax of Things had a list of contributors each name the most underrated writers. If that list was reincarnated today, I would easily name Willy Vlautin as my choice. Recently in the Telegraph, Colm Tóibín wrote of Vlautin, "There is a lovely lazy beauty about his prose that must come from having a pure ear for music, but also he has a sense of character and plot that most novelists would envy." I have to agree wholeheartedly, and can unabashedly recommend his other novels The Motel Life and Northline.

The Independent wrote of the book:

"Lean On Pete is an archetypal American novel, Huck Finn for the crystal-meth generation. If there's the occasional touch of sentimentality, it's hard-earned and welcome. This is a sad, often brutal, but oddly beautiful portrait of an America that's forgotten only because we choose not to remember its continuing existence."

In his own words, here is Willy Vlautin's Book Notes music playlist for his novel, Lean on Pete:

Charley Thompson, the narrator of Lean on Pete, doesn't have a computer or a stereo or even a CD player. He's a kid who's not obsessed with music, he doesn't even really follow music on the radio. So his narration doesn't have music to it, it's closed and simple and strict because if he lets it out, he'll fall apart. He's hanging on just barely. So when I wrote the novel I thought of music only as a soundtrack, taking place outside of the sentences. But I'd hear a song and say, "Hey that's Charley's song. Or that's a song that Del would like, or that's the song Pinto would get drunk to, or that one feels like Ruby." This list is a few of those songs.

1) "Sonic Wind" - Calexico

It's a song I can listen to for hours at a time, it has an epic cinematic feel to it, it's part desert, part western, part action movie, part romance. When I think of Charley and Pete walking through the high desert of eastern Oregon I think of this song. It would be the soundtrack to a daydream Charley would have about himself and Pete. A great action/adventure daydream he'd use to kill time. What a solo by Jacob Valenzuela! If I could disappear into a song, this would be the one.

2) "Cancion Mixteca" - Harry Dean Stanton

It's a song I hear when I see Charley walking the streets of Denver, Colorado. He's on Colfax Ave and he's alone and things are looking bleak. But I always imagined Harry Dean Stanton singing to him, helping him, looking after him, and this is the song he'd sing. It's one that has always brought me great comfort.

3) "I Was Young When I left Home" – Bob Dylan

This song always stops me in my tracks. There's a grand loneliness to it, a proud defeatist, an edge to the narrator that runs through the middle of him. Charley's dipped in this even though he doesn't realize it yet.

4) "Mystic and Severe" – Ennio Morricone

There's a scene in the novel where Charley sneaks out the back of his house, the police are in the front, and his father is laying on the ground unconscious and hurt. I always figured Charley would jump the back fence and run down the road to this song. An epic adventure song, full of sadness and impending doom.

5) "Lonnie's Lament" – John Coltrane

While writing Lean on Pete John Coltrane's music started to make sense to me, it was a great gift to finally fall in love with his music. I'd written a short scene with a guy named Lonnie Dixon. A man who was driving thousands of miles to be with his brother who'd just fallen off scaffolding and was in the hospital. When I heard this song I knew it was Lonnie's song, it was even named Lonnie's Lament. It was meant to be. I just imagine Lonnie drinking a 12 pack of Coke trying to stay awake, driving. His old truck is tired and he's lost in worry and anxiety and this song plays all around him.

6) "One Time One Night" – Los Lobos

David Hildago is one of my favorite singers and I've always thought that Charley Thompson could have been a character in this song. It always eases my mind to think of this, that if was, he'd be less lonely ‘cause David Hildago's voice would protect him. Ha Ha HA! See, I am crazy.

7) "Skid Row" - Merle Haggard

It's the morning and Charley is in the truck with his boss, Del. Lean on Pete and Broken Blue are in the trailer and Del is warming up the truck and is chewing Copenhagen and drinking coffee. Charley is drinking hot chocolate and the sun's coming up. It's a beautiful morning. Del's finally in a good mood and then this song comes on the radio. The perfect song for that scene. A great upbeat song about being down and out! Even when your boss is horrible like Del, once in awhile things are alright.

8) "Lion's Jaw" – Neko Case

This is the song I think Charley would identify with Ruby, the girl he meets in Boise, Idaho. A great song by one of the great singers. A huge romantic epic that clocks in at under two minutes and thirty seconds. It's a song that his heart would live in when he'd think of the girl. The dream of Ruby, her heart is like the voice in the song, and the "Lion's Jaw" is the couple in the camper, the couple taking Ruby to Arizona.

9) "All My Life" - Old Joe Clarks

I could always see Charley walking down the street in St. Johns/Portland and coming across Mike Coykendall singing this song on the sidewalk. The kid has never really heard good music live and it would be in the middle of the day and he'd stop and hear this from start to finish. It would break his heart in a way he wouldn't understand yet. There's such beauty and gentleness and sadness in this one. Charley would stumble into it just walking down a city street. Once in a while a guy gets lucky, he gets the gift of a great song.

Willy Vlautin and Lean on Pete links:

the author's website
the author's Wikipedia entry
video trailer for the book
excerpt from the book

Andrew Blackman review
Bart's Bookshelf review
BookPage review
Broomfield Enterprise
Chazz W review
City of Tongues review
CMT Blog review
Dan's Journal review
Guardian review
Helen Loves Books review
The Independent review
Irish Times review
The List review
Oregonian review
Powell's Books review
Time Out Chicago review
Tut. Sulk. Tut. review
Village Books review
Windfarm review
With Extra Pulp review

Buzz Magazine interview with the author
Nerve interview with the author
Oregonian profile of the author
Powell's Books interview with the author
Song By Toad interview with the author
Think Out Loud interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

other Book Notes playlists (authors create music playlists for their book)

52 Books, 52 Weeks (weekly book reviews)
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly comics highlights)
Daily Downloads (free and legal daily mp3 downloads)
guest book reviews
Largehearted Word (weekly new book highlights)
musician/author interviews
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
Try It Before You Buy It (mp3s and full album streams from the week's CD releases)
weekly music & DVD release lists

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