A spare, melancholic tale about a poor young man’s burning desire to succeed as a boxer.
Like his earlier novels, Vlautin’s (The Free, 2014, etc.) latest follows in the tradition of John Steinbeck's and Raymond Carver’s moving portraits of working-class people. The focus is on two nuanced characters. Horace Hopper is a 21-year-old half-Paiute, half-white man who works on 72-year-old Eldon Reese’s sheep ranch in a canyon outside Tonopah, Nevada. Horace, abandoned by his mother when he was 12, was taken in by Reese and his wife, Louise. Horace has grown up in a loving, generous family who gave him work, food, money, and a life, but he yearns for more, to “be somebody,” to fight like a Mexican boxer because “they’re true warriors who never quit.” He’s committed to going to Tucson, Arizona, to participate in a Golden Gloves competition. Reese tries his best to dissuade Horace, offering to give him his ranch when he can no longer run it, which is probably pretty soon. Horace says he has to go—“I’m gonna do great down there”—but promises to come back. With a heart full of hope and determination he moves to Tucson, finds a part-time job, and hires Alberto Ruiz as his trainer. Vlautin’s narrative seamlessly floats back and forth between Reese and Horace as he creates two beautifully rendered characters. Reese’s quiet life goes on: working on his tractor, talking to friends, missing Horace, drinking a cold beer. Horace works out and trains with Ruiz, but Ruiz notices a flaw in Horace’s boxing technique. He tends to “freeze up,” something another fighter would quickly pick up on. They’re going to work on it. Horace finds success in his first tastes of competition, but there’s a distinct sense of foreboding in the air as Vlautin slowly lets this poignant tale unwind to its inevitable, heartbreaking conclusion.
A powerful, haunting portrayal of lives rendered in unflinching, understated prose.