Don’t Skip Out On Me – Willy Vlautin

I’ve struggled to read in the last year since Dad died. It’s a symptom of grief, the inability to focus on those things that previously brought you pleasure. It’s getting better though. I can feel things changing.

Willy Vlautin has helped. Willy was the front man of Richmond Fontaine and lately has been providing the Delines with the remarkable songs that filled the Colfax and The Imperial LPs. Amy Boone has been doing a sterling job of telling Willy’s stories, her voice articulating perfectly the midnight glow of the bars, the exiles on Main Street who inhabit Vlautin’s world.

Vlautin writes novels too. I enjoyed The Motel Life (which I wrote about here) and have just finished and loved Don’t Skip Out On Me. His books are populated by similar characters that he sketches in such sharp lines in his songs.

The dust jacket gives an idea of Vlautin’s standing. It contains quotes from Roddy Doyle, author of the Commitments and Paddy Clark Ha Ha, Irish Author Colm Toibin and John Doe of LA punk legends X.

Don’t Skip Out On Me is the story of Horace Hopper, half Irish, half Native American, 100% Nevadan. This isn’t enough for Horace though. He wants to be a boxer, a Mexican fighter. So he leaves Mr and Mrs Reese, whose ranch he practically runs in Topanah and to whom Horace is the son they never had. Horace heads to Arizona and becomes Hector Hidalgo with a pair of home made red silk shorts and not a lot else.

Hector can hit hard and he can also take the punches, sometimes too many punches. Is that enough to build his boat and sail toward fame and fortune?

For those musically inclined, Toponah may ring some bells. The Nevada town was one of the stops that Lowell George’s trucker had driven to in Little Feat’s gorgeous “Willin'”. This was a ballad written after the death of the railroads, when road haulage was king:

And I’ve been from Tucson to Tucumcari, Tehachapi to Tonopah

I’ve driven every kind of rig that’s ever been made

Driven the backroads so I wouldn’t get weighed

From Little Feat’s eponymous debut album and Sailin’ Shoes

The knack of introducing a soulful tone to American tales is common to both Lowell George and Willy Vlautin. It doesn’t feel accidental that Vlautin picked Tonopah as the base for Don’t Skip Out On Me.

What Vlautin does wonderfully is sketch out the people and places that form Horace and the Reeses’ world. The town’s ranch owners who like Mr Reese are getting old and struggling to cope with 21st century post-industrial agriculture sit in cafes wondering how to retire from the only life they’ve known. The boxing coaches who can’t make a living now the golden years of the seventies and eighties have gone. Those spaces in obscure convention centres where boxers with a 9-4 record look to get that one lucky shot at fame and fortune.

Horace ends up in Mexico and we all know that nothing good happens when young American men head toward Tijuana. Horace reveals his humanity though, a quality that shines through all of the key players in Don’t Skip Out On Me. It’s an enormously moving novel, with likeable characters that one ends up rooting for.

I need to catch up on the rest of Vlautin’s books. At the recent Delines gig at London’s Union Chapel, Amy Boone confirmed that the band were heading back into the studio to record the follow up to The Imperial. New songs had been written and to keep our appetite whetted, the Delines released a single Eight Floors Up at the end of last year.

The single is somewhat of a departure from the sound of the last two album. It is sparser, a song about morphine that sounds like the Velvet’s Live 1969 line up being fronted by a female soul singer. There are less embellishments, via horns or pedal steels. B-side Wait For Me plays out like lovelorn bar-room ballad, packed full of two o’clock in the morning regret.

So I’ll work my way gradually through Vlautin’s other books and wait for the next Delinks album.

The wait will be worth it.

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