Willy Vlautin, Northline (Harper Perennial, 2008)
The final scene of the 2005 film, Jarhead, is a montage depicting life after wartime for a disbanded troop of marines, boys thrust back into lives in the trenches of society. Its soundtrack, the song “Soldier’s Things” by Tom Waits—singer of American born-under-a-bad-sign stories—lyrically rifles through the garage sale of an unknown solider: “Cuff links and hub caps/Trophies and paperbacks/It’s good transportation/But the brakes aren’t so hot…This one is for bravery/And this one is for me/And everything’s a dollar/In this box.”
The soldier sells possessions for fast cash in small quantities, either to stay afloat or to drown the sorrows of postwar life. Temporary or permanent, this is a state known to many war veterans, working poor, even the middle class in this country—the experience of losing ground in a society that runs counter to the plight of the individual; to the personal tolls of living on the frontlines of a nation in transition.
Author Willy Vlautin, who doubles as an alt-country musician, has been compared to Waits, whom Vlautin names as a personal lifeline (“When things go bad for me I always put on Tom Waits”). In terms of subject matter, the comparison holds; both Vlautin and Waits turn to the emotional gutter for tarnished inspirations. However, the humor that Waits is capable of (listen to songs like “Big in Japan” and “Cemetery Polka”) is nowhere to be found in Vlautin’s second novel to date, the first printing of which includes a tangential CD soundtrack by Vlautin himself.
Northline is composed of intimate glimpses of outcast individuals struggling against an accumulation of setbacks, old and new, real and imagined. Set in Las Vegas and Reno, the novel’s main impetus is the prospect of change—how we embrace, resist, accept, or reject it in times of need; how its promise can revert to ambivalence when our pasts come to the fore.
In terse, at times abrasive prose, Vlautin portrays the life of a young woman named Allison, a figure whose life is segmented into habits, memories, people, and prospects which—haphazardly, oftentimes simultaneously—strengthen her resolve to change or justify her attitude of resignation. Allison’ws is not a tale of substantive redemption, but of subsistence colored by pale bright spots and panicky regressions: Coming home to her new apartment at the end of her new waitressing shift—which brought with it a promising flirtation—the arrival of a letter from her ex-boyfriend Jimmy leads to binge drinking at a dive bar, self-destructive sex with two pawnshop salesmen, and a two-day collapse on the kitchen floor.
But Allison does rise. “She got up and went to the sink for a glass of water. She made herself eat a piece of bread, then turned on the TV and started the tub.” These faint motions embody her formula for survival—doing the minimum in order to get up off the floor, which, in the context of this down-but-not-out novel, is everything.
Vlautin is skilled at writing personal vignettes with unseen social borders (racial tension and the U.S. Latino demographic is a pervasive theme). Northline stays close to Allison, recording her hardest moments and a few good turns, yet its proximity captures more than the ups-and-downs of a girl with a past. It points to a common present, deluded by the past, both seeking and dreading the future. In Allison’s own words: “It’s hard when something you know changes, when things get worse or different and you remember when times were easier or at least felt safer and not so busy.”