His novels champion regular folk. The same regular folk who get up every day and grind through life in a world that has been, at times, cruel and unfair, serving up a plate of undeserved bad luck and bad fate.
They’re also novels of beautiful prose, stories with characters you want to take home, have a beer with, and hug. Characters that are people you know, like a friend from grade school, an older sibling’s degenerate acquaintance, or you.
Willy Vlautin has brought these characters to life via five novels – and even more songs – as the songwriter and frontman of Richmond Fontaine, the critically-acclaimed Portland, Oregon-based band, which has been tossed into the alternative country realm by playing songs reflecting the human narrative via a Western noir soundtrack.
Vlautin will be at Maria’s Bookshop on Sunday (March 18), reading from his new novel, “Don’t Skip Out on Me,” and playing songs from his catalog.
His latest is a tale of a young man growing up and working on a ranch in rural Nevada while struggling with identity. Abandoned by his parents, raised by the Reese family who own the ranch, and following a dream to become a professional boxer, it’s what Vlautin calls a “study in loneliness.”
It’s also following the idea that everyone deserves to have their heroic story heard.
“Your favorite grocery clerk, why can’t she be a hero, or why can’t your mom? My mom was a secretary, why can’t she be a hero? Yeah, I’ve always been interested in writing stories around people I know. They all deserve stories,” Vlautin said. “To me, that’s always been heroic, and as a fan of books, I’ve always wanted to read about those kind of people because they made me feel less alone. I’ve always sought out those kinds of books. Then, when I started writing my own, that’s what I wanted to write.”
Richmond Fontaine has never made a bad record, and Vlautin hasn’t written a bad paragraph. The characters in the songs of Richmond Fontaine, and the characters in Vlautin’s books, go hand in hand. Absorbing one record, or reading one book, isn’t enough.
Vlautin is worthy of recognition as a great American writer in both song and book, as his words in both mediums come across as straightforward and painfully honest, making the truth and reality hurt in a beautiful way. “Don’t Skip Out On Me” was the title of a song on a Richmond Fontaine record from 2016, and is the title of the band’s instrumental album that accompanies the book.
“The soundtrack to my stories are my songs. Most times, I finish a song and I don’t think about that idea again, but some just linger around and hang out and won’t leave me alone. Usually those are the ones I end up putting around a novel,” Vlautin said.
The beauty of his work is the striking and honest reality that comes across in his novels, along with his past work in Richmond Fontaine. There’s a genuine blue-collar approach to the writing – a straight-forward, clock-in and don’t-clock-out-until-the-job-is-done method of serious dedication to the craft. He’s a real artist, and what he’s making is way more than just words on a page. There is real care in the tales and the people he brings to life.
He’s also a heck of a nice dude, and his touring behind the book and reading passages to audiences ensures some longevity for the characters.
“The books are pals of mine, and I always feel like putting a book out is like sticking your best friend in a rowboat and sending them off in the Pacific Ocean,” Vlautin said. “They’re gonna get swallowed up into nothing, but by touring them I always feel like your helping your pal out, you’re helping him land somewhere safe.”
Bryant Liggett is a freelance writer and KDUR station manager. firstname.lastname@example.org.