An unflinching look at people living on the edge in Vegas and Reno.
Vlautin (The Motel Life, 2007) turns his frighteningly unsentimental gaze on those drifting through life, spending much of their time with Budweiser and Jim Beam, and (occasionally) trying to find a modestly higher purpose. The central figure is Allison Johnson, whose self-esteem is lower than the elevation of the desert that surrounds her. Her boyfriend, Jimmy Bodie, is sympathetic with the skinheads and in a spasm of collective drunkenness has a swastika tattooed on Allison’s back. After numerous abuses—including being locked in the trunk of his car and handcuffed to a bed for ten hours—she’s had enough. She heads to Reno alone to have Jimmy’s baby and to escape him once and for all. After giving up her infant son for adoption, she starts to get her life together. She works as a waitress at the Cal Neva Top Deck restaurant, the graveyard shift so she has fewer human interactions to deal with. Allison’s self-image remains fragile, so much so that every so often she summons up a fantasy image of Paul Newman, who encourages her to better herself. At first Allison is a rather unattractive character—hard-drinking and pathologically timid—but eventually her fragility and vulnerability make her more sympathetic. She takes a second job as a telephone solicitor for Curt vacuum cleaners, and she even begins to date Dan Mahony, a similarly scarred (and scared) outsider, a regular customer at the Top Deck who like Allison rarely ventures outside his sphere of the familiar. Vlautin’s literary style either consciously or unconsciously echoes that of Hemingway (“They walked there in silence and she ordered a cup of coffee. He ordered a donut and coffee, and they sat at the counter.”), and it offers a simplicity of diction that conveys limited realities. By the end of the novel Allison moves tentatively toward transcending her original lot in life.
Spare and strangely moving.