Contemporary Western follows rancher hand’s journey to manhood
“Don’t Skip Out on Me”
by Willy Vlautin
Author Willy Vlautin wrote a stunning contemporary Western in “Don’t Skip Out on Me.” Then, in his parallel universe as rock star/singer-songwriter, Vlautin’s band, Richmond Fontaine, made an album to go with his book. And so, it becomes a glorious day in the literary hunt when you come across a novel so good that all you want to do when you turn the last page is lie down, listen on repeat to an album designed to suck you deeper into that world, and dwell all afternoon in the blistering essence of central Nevada.
You could call Vlautin’s new novel a boxing story, a cowboy tale or a dark dismantling of the great Western fantasy. It’s real and nuanced. This is grit on the sagebrush sea told by someone who deeply understands the setting.
Horace Hopper is a half-Paiute ranch hand struggling to enter manhood — a transformation, for him, that means becoming a champion Mexican boxer. Rancher Mr. Reese is a powerful mentor, a father figure and a survivor of the harsh terrain. He’s a personification of generational struggle that agriculture in the arid West is resigned to. Their questions are thick: How do you carry on? What does it take to be a champion, to leave a legacy?
Horace is on a search for worth as he grapples with his origin story. On his path, Horace scratches out of Tonopah, Nevada into the scruffy margins of Tucson, Las Vegas, San Antonio and Tijuana. He finds cowardice on a bus and shame in Tijuana. He wins the big trophy but remains filled with self-loathing and doubt.
Along the way, Horace tangles himself in harmless lies and small vignettes that are no more glorious than his truth — just different. He’s as honest as can be, but not honest with himself. He is infinitely vulnerable and filled with a kind of unjustified shame that breaks him a little every day. His journey connects with drifters and grifters — fellow Native Americans down on their luck and innocents fearful of engaging with a lost soul.
Mr. Reese is a sheep rancher with a wise brand of small-town worldliness that makes him an observant mentor. When Horace and Mr. Reese meet in a big-city convention hall before a boxing bout, there is a knowingness to Mr. Reese’s words, “I’ve never been able to get used to fake air.”
“Don’t Skip Out on Me” is a study in loneliness, from the Peruvian sheep herder who is losing his mind in the wilderness, to Hector’s nameless existence among urban millions, to a rancher grappling with retirement on the open range. This is a story of men — men experiencing parallel pain and ways of denial while glaring side-eyed at life, mortality, purpose and meaning.
Their foundations are shaky. Shame is powerful as each wanders in his own abyss of broken dreams and crumbling relationships. They learn that you can change your name and your place, but you’re always your self.
Vlautin’s writing evokes a modern-day Kent Haruf seeded with the raw emotion of Laura Pritchett. The characters are vivid and their struggles are real. Vlautin casts us west to the Great Basin in a deep-seeded understanding of the West, an insidious un-romanticized power of its landscape and the human drama of the rural margins. He serves it up in crisp, deeply observant writing full of complexity and strangely beautiful ugliness.
“Don’t Skip Out on Me” is the tale of a ranch-hand boxer that hits with a mighty punch. But Vlautin’s characters blindside his readers even more than bloody fights that crack ribs and make eyes go bleary. These are life stories that knock out hearts, dreams and destinies.
Vlautin visits Steamboat Springs to speak about “Don’t Skip Out on Me” as part of the free Library Author Series at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, May 8 at the Bud Werner Memorial Library.
This book is available at Bud Werner Memorial Library and Off the Beaten Path Bookstore.
Jennie Lay is the adult programs coordinator Bud Werner Memorial Library.
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