Science Fiction That Isn't Science Fiction (14)
A veteran of the Iraq war, Leroy Kervin, lies in a coma after unsuccessfully trying to commit suicide; one of his nurses, Pauline, juggles work and caring for her ungrateful, mentally-ill father; Freddie, who works as a night-watchman in Leroy's group home because he can't earn enough to make ends meet in his day job, takes on a tremendous risk to pay the medical bills for the treatment of his young daughter. Willy Vlautin, of Portland-based band Richmond Fontaine, writes songs that are condensed short stories about people living hard lives of quiet desperation; The Free, his fourth novel, contrasts his raw and heartfelt reportage with a dash of surrealism.
As the stories of Pauline and Freddie cross and recross, Leroy, a science-fiction reader, dreams of trying to escape with the woman he loves from a dystopian version of America where gangs of vigilantes, the Free, hunt down those who have been indelibly marked by a test 'to weed out those who think from those who are soldiers.' The America of Leroy's nightmares, like all dystopias a distorting mirror of its present, becomes a counterpoint to the quests of Pauline, who becomes entangled with a troubled young runaway, Jo, and of Freddie, who has to set out on a journey in his ailing car to recover his daughters from his deadbeat wife and her selfish boyfriend. Against its dark backdrop, ordinary moments of kindness and bravery shine a little brighter, a little more hopefully (and, thinking of the bloodbaths and torturefests of some contemporary science fiction and fantasy, I can't help wondering how dark our waking world seems to have become, to need such a grim contrast).
Vlautin's portraits of people down on their luck, and the stoic way they face up to injustice and hard choices, are drawn with plain but sympathetic detail; the mundane daily struggles of their lives are delineated by bills and shopping lists, the bone-ache of routine, and frank conversations with strangers caught up in the same kind of problems - deadbeat bosses, a health care system that can bankrupt ordinary people, a social system where old values and certainties have been replaced by zero-hour contracts and the ever-present the threat of bankruptcy and foreclosure. Likewise, the O. Henry sentiment of the intertwined stories - a damaged war veteran who tries to kill himself in a moment of clarity; a father making a sacrifice to take care of his daughters; a nurse trying to save a young patient from her bad choices - is tempered by a tough, clear-eyed realism. The runaway, Jo, goes back to the abuse of her life on the streets because it is all she knows; having to take care of his daughters give Freddie a renewed purpose in life, but his worries about medical bills and insurance still loom over him. As Leroy's dream quest runs out, the characters in the waking world find hope in renewed or newly found love, and heroism in surviving each new day. And that, this affecting novel, suggests, is sometimes all we can hope for: the small but vital moments of human grace it chronicles might just be enough to keep away the dark world of the Free.