Staff Review: The Free

9780062276742The Free

Willy Vlautin

Harper Perennial

$14.99 (paperback original)

Available February 2014

Rabbi Harold Kushner wrote a book called When Bad Things Happen to Good People back in 1981, drawing parallels with the trials of Job. Bad things happening to good people is unfortunately part of the human condition, and doesn’t show any signs of going away anytime soon. The Free, by Willy Vlautin (The Motel Life, Northline, and Lean on Pete), is a modern day parable of good people caught up in bad circumstances.

The combination of the poor economy, diminished family support structures, the lack of affordable healthcare, our willingness to wage war without thought for any consequences, and pure bad luck, create a downward spiral for people on the edge. People who are regular middle class people like us, who are being slowly squeezed into poverty. Are we as secure as we think we are?

The three people in The Free are all good, hardworking people, whose lives just seem to slowly spiral out of control. Leroy Kervin has been so severely wounded in the Iraq war that he has lived in a group home for eight years, unable to function. Freddie McCall, a night watchman at Leroy’s group home, also works at a hardware store, in order to support one of his handicapped daughters. After his wife takes the children and leaves him, child support and mounting medical bills force him into a bad decision. Pauline Hawkins is a nurse at Leroy’s home; she is emotionally drained by both her job and from caring for her mentally ill father. She cannot form a meaningful connection with another person.

In such grim circumstances, the only thing people can control is how they deal with their situations. Leroy, in a moment of lucidity, makes a choice to retreat inside himself, and eventually his death sets him free. Freddie gets his children back, and experiences the kindness of strangers. Pauline makes a connection with a drug-addicted runaway. We don’t get the happy ending where everybody lives happily ever after, but we get a sense of acceptance and peace, and sometimes that is all we can expect.  I really liked this novel and found it in step with life in America today.

~ Lysbeth Abrams

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