Faber & Faber
Leroy has returned, broken, from fighting in Iraq. In his early twenties and only six months into his deployment, a roadside bomb had destroyed the car he was in. The book opens with him waking in a residential group home back in America and being surprised by the lucidity of his own thoughts.
…for the first time since the explosion, he woke with clarity. Memories flooded into him.
Believing this is just another stage of his psychosis, that his mind is soon to be fogged up again, and possibly overwhelmed by the sudden remembrance of everything, he decides to kill himself. Leroy is panicked but there is no sensationalising of the violence. He steps his way through suicide, gathering what he needs (a picket-fence gate, a shirt sleeve for rope), to get the job done. Freddie works the night shift at the group home and is woken by the noise of Leroy throwing himself down the stairs onto the tethered gate and finds him bleeding out. Pauline is a nurse at the hospital Leroy is taken to. She is kind and good at her job.
The Free follows these three, loosely connected people, all three of them just getting by in their working class lives. We find Freddie is up to his eyeballs in debt. That one of his daughters has needed medical attention and although his wife has taken his children away from him to live with another man, Freddie is left paying off the bills. He works two jobs, a day shift at a paint store as well as the night shift at the home but it’s somehow still not enough. Unable to maintain payments on his home, he feels he has no choice but to store a nursery of marijuana plants in his basement for a friend. This is the first criminal thing he has done in his life and the paranoia eats away at him. We see that outside of work Pauline has to take care of her father who suffers from mental illness. Pauline has no life of her own. It makes you wonder why she would go into nursing as a trade when that’s all she does outside of work. She also becomes attached to a homeless girl who has been brought into the hospital with abscesses, infected through heroin use. Pauline believes the girl is being abused by two homeless men who turn up at the hospital, stinking and eating the girl’s food. When the girl runs from the hospital, Pauline takes it upon herself to search for and help her. And to escape the pains of his fatal injuries Leroy retreats into his mind, creating and living within a story fashioned from the sci-fi his mother continues to read at his bedside, where he is on the run from vigilantes senselessly hunting people with ‘the mark’, a green colouring on the skin. Along his escape he sees the horrific violence acted upon those with the mark, obvious reverberations from his own experiences in Iraq. While following his story, we are watching Leroy fight for his life.
All of the lead characters are genuinely good people and the unconditional tenderness that they feel and give to each other is touching. Mora, a waitress at a donut shop, shows her care for Freddie by dropping extra donut holes into his bag while asking how he is. The disregard Pauline has for her own safety when tracking down the homeless girl. Freddie’s reaction on finding Leroy:
Freddie wanted to say something to comfort him, but every time he tried to speak he began to cry.
He’d always liked Leroy. For a man who couldn’t speak, whose brain had been caved in by war, he had personality. He liked Cap’n Crunch and would watch the science fiction channel for days on end. He had never picked a fight or become violent towards the other residents…And there were times…when Leroy would wake him in the middle of the night. He would pull Freddie to the back door and knock on it. Freddie would find the key, unlock it, and they would go outside and look at the stars. Leroy would move around the small lawn like an old man, his head back, staring at the faraway galaxies.
All this recognised about a man who never spoke, by a man swamped in his own personal worries.
An ever-growing list of writers (Roddy Doyle, George Pelecanos, Sarah Hall, Ann Patchett, Mark Billingham, Jane Smiley) are lining up to praise Vlautin and it’s easy to see why. Vlautin is able to make real and evoke so much with simple sentences. The characters live their lives, making ends meet, repeating days that are like all the days that went before but Vlautin is brilliant at revealing the slight adjustments in their days, possibly the same differences in habit that the characters themselves focus on. The time given to each character is balanced perfectly; I never once tired of hearing one person’s story or wanted to race onto the next character’s life. The sci-fi element could have been stronger but in the context of the story, it might be asking too much for a man in dire pain to think up a more interestingly exciting storyline.