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Willy Vlautin, Lean on Pete and the literary song

Some of you may remember me waxing lyrical about Willy Vlautin’s new novel, Lean on Pete, a few weeks back. At the time I was planning to write a rather longer post about it, and about Willy’s fiction more generally, but before that could happen I was asked to review it, which put paid to the post.

Anyway – the review was in this weekend’s Australian, and you can read it on their website, but if you want the potted version, the book’s an absolute gem: gentle, shocking, sad and hopeful all at once.

What’s particularly fascinating about the book to me is the fact that Vlautin’s skills as a songwriter so obviously underpin the success of the fiction. You often hear songwriters like Paul Kelly being celebrated as storytellers, but in fact the qualities that lend Kelly’s songs their particular magic are quite different to those that underpin fiction. Partly this is a question of scale: even relatively brief fictional forms such as the short story dwarf the lyrical component of most songs, allowing them a degree of complexity songs are denied. But it’s also about the relative simplicity of song lyrics: whereas fiction tends to use narrative as a thread to explore the interior lives of characters, and more particularly the tensions, contradictions and discontinuities, songs usually shy away from these qualities, preferring to communicate feeling in a more direct manner (if you’re interested, I talked a bit about more these questions last year, in my post about Don Walker’s memoir, Shots).

What’s interesting about Vlautin’s songs is that they are, in some deep sense, highly literary creations. Despite the relative simplicity of their lyrics, their effect is usually dependent upon the manner in which what is being said and what we understand are at odds with each other. In my review I mention ‘The Boyfriends’, from We Used To Think The Freeway Sounded Like A River, and its narrator’s anguished cry of ‘I ain’t like that’ upon realising the child of the woman he has picked up in a bar has been watching them having sex, but many of Vlautin’s songs rely upon this sort of irony. What makes songs like ‘The Boyfriends’ (or indeed songs such as ‘$87 And A Guilty Conscience That Gets Worse The Longer I Go’ or ‘I Fell Into Painting Houses In Phoenix, Arizona’) so powerful is the fragility of their narrators’ self belief, and Vlautin’s keen eye for the deceptions that sustain it, and more importantly, the moments at which that belief finally – and painfully – gives way.

Last time I looked, Vlautin was listed as one of the guests at this year’s Sydney Writers’ Festival, where, amongst other things, he’s being interviewed by my old pal, Richard Fidler, but you can hear him reading from Lean on Pete in the video before (and yes, I know I’ve posted it before). And if you’re interested in the music, you’ll find a live version of ‘The Boyfriends’ beneath it, together with a video for ‘Capsized’, one of my favourite songs from my favourite Richmond Fontaine album, Thirteen Cities. Enjoy.





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