DON'T SKIP OUT ON ME, a novel by WILLY VLAUTIN

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DON'T SKIP OUT ON ME, a novel by WILLY VLAUTIN

When the young Mexican boxer Hector Hidalgo stepped into the ring wearing his red trunks trimmed with gold and bearing embroidered Thompson machine guns alongside his name, he wasn't there.

He wasn't Hector.

Hector Hidalgo was in fact Horace Hopper, part-Paiute/part Irish, who not only didn't speak Spanish -- a language he found difficult to learn – but didn't even like the spicy Mexican food.

He'd spent about half his life on a remote sheep ranch in Nevada with the now-elderly Mr and Mrs Reese who loved him like a son.

But out there in the wasteland Horace dreamed of better things than sheep and ranching as the Reeses became more frail and the life went out of the business. Horace had photos of Mexican boxers on his wall – they were the toughest, no Indian was ever a decent boxer he reasoned to himself -- and aspired to be a champion fighter.

In truth however, Horace wasn't much of a boxer. He had no trainer or decent training regime, sometimes froze when hit and even after he gets to Tucson where he falls into the low end of the fight game he doesn't stick to his training and eats burger and fries.

Horace/Hector is one of the central characters – the other being the caring but increasingly frail Mr Reese – in this typically grim, spare and artfully detailed novel by Willy Vlautin, better known to music people as the singer-songwriter in Richmond Fontaine and the Delines.

As with his previous novels – Elsewhere wrote about The Motel Life some years back and his albums with Richmond Fontaine – Vlautin has an eye for the dusty, dry and rundown details of lives where hope and dreams are eaten from within and without; where Horace sink deeper into depression and silence as he is forced to confront the hollowness of the lie he has tried to live; and the slow death of the sheep farm and the damaged characters who have worked on it.

Don't Skip Out On Me pulls the reader into a world where small truths are revealed slowly, where characters are drawn in such detail that you can feel them sweat out the beer and tequila, or in the case of the Reeses the love and hurt they feel for Horace.

This is a dark story often acted out in sun-bleached backstreets, dirty gyms or in dry valleys where Pedro – 30 years, mostly alone, in the hard scrabble pastures – is effectively mute from depression and self-mutilates.

Vlautin writes with empathy for his characters, their decline is abetted by circumstances beyond their control and sometimes understanding.

(The writer and Richmond Fontaine have also recorded a soundtrack to the story, however it seems you need a code to download and hear it. No idea how to get that.) 

There is little beauty and no redemption here, that is clear from the first few pages, but the telling of the story is what this is about. The arc maybe hard to take, but Vlautin writes with such care and detail is it is impossible to pull away from.

Another extraordinary book about what can often be the most ordinary of things: defeat, loss and love.

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