A meditation on loneliness

The Guardian
By Davina Langdale

This bruising yet surprisingly tender tale of urban isolation shines a light on the drifters and the broken-down.

Hector Hidalgo is a young Mexican boxer who wants to turn professional. Only “Hector Hidalgo” doesn’t exist – he’s the persona of Horace Hopper, a 21-year-old ranch hand born to a Native American father and an Irish mother who is desperate to escape his own stifling sense of failure. The trouble with reinventing oneself is that it involves leaving other people behind, and US novelist and musician Willy Vlautin’s fifth novel is a meditation on loneliness, in which the outer and inner landscapes ring with a sound akin to desolation.

Horace lives in Nevada on the Reese ranch, having been taken in as a teenager by Mr Reese and his wife, now in their 70s. Mr Reese wants Horace to take over the ranch but Horace feels unworthy of such trust, gnawed at by his mother’s abandonment of him, aged 12, to his Irish grandmother, who is sketched with Vlautin’s typical blunt strokes as a woman who “drank Coors light on ice from 11am until she fell asleep on the couch at nine, who chain-smoked cigarettes, who ate only frozen dinners, and who was scared of Indians, blacks and Mexicans”.

Sensitive Horace winds up “lonely and different and lost”, and it is the damage loneliness can wreak that the novel delineates so well. He witnesses the squalor that men can descend into when they are robbed of intimacy, forgetting to care for themselves and others, in the form of one of the Reese shepherds. We also sense an emptiness in Horace, who remembers unhappy events and is aware of his own uncomfortable feelings but seems to lack the ability to fully contemplate them. Intriguingly, he keeps a “Log of Bad Dreams”, but sadly we are never allowed into that inner world.

Horace travels to Tucson to train as a boxer, but his lack of faith in himself threatens to derail his plans – and there’s a falter in the momentum here, too. Vlautin’s realism lacks the granularity of, say, Raymond Carver, where even the most everyday objects or events are imbued with symbolic significance. Later, it becomes clear that Horace may be in with a chance, but despite this, to his surprise if not ours, “it seemed the closer he was to what he wanted, the more lost he became. The sinking feeling that had plagued him his entire life wasn’t going away.”

Horace’s goal may sound incredible but it doesn’t feel that way because Vlautin is writing about ordinary people in clean, spare language. He viscerally communicates the pain and damage to the body after a fight, although, for me, the fight scenes could be more visual. This matters less than it might because the book is about identity not boxing, and it is Mr Reese, with his shining, quiet decency, who has real emotional clout. Horace’s grandmother’s callous prediction for him – “Maybe he’ll end up the town drunk … You never can tell with Indians” – is met by Mr Reese with: “Well, hopefully we’ll be an asset to the boy.”

Vlautin is big on incidental surface detail: we are told what music Horace is listening to (Vlautin is frontman of the band Richmond Fontaine) and given detailed shopping lists and relentless menus – plates are “heaped with shrimp, cilantro, cucumber, peppers, tomatoes, onion, avocado and hot sauce”. “His favourite food besides fried chicken, mashed potatoes and gravy was Italian food: spaghetti, lasagne, pizza and ravioli.” This barrage of information sits oddly with an important moment in which Horace’s trust is betrayed and all we are told is that he “couldn’t believe what he had seen”. More surprising is Mr Reese’s sudden revelation that Horace has “taught me a lot of things” and “he can get you inspired”. We do not need force-feeding to grasp that food is taking the place of love; we require more evidence of this ethereal young man’s apparent ability to inspire, for the drawback of Mr Reese being so finely crafted is that Horace, unavoidably perhaps, seems underdeveloped. He is attached to a self-help book on how to be a champion, but while this device adds welcome humour to what might otherwise seem an unremittingly bleak tale, it does not make Horace inspirational; it simply makes us ache for him more.

Don’t Skip Out on Me shines a light on the broken-down and the drifters; it is a bruising yet surprisingly tender study of the need for human connection, and the way that urban landscapes can be more isolating than any wilderness. As Horace loses himself in the city, submerging his loneliness in a deluge of TV and mac and cheese, he becomes in real danger of disappearing from his own life. As the working ranches of the Reeses’ generation die out, as wells have to be dug ever deeper to find water, a question hovers in the background: if we cast ourselves adrift from the land and nature, what then will be our anchor? Horace’s search for identity and meaning amid the white noise of urban life feels like a curiously relevant tale for us all.

Willy Vlautin