With a black guitar case at his side, Vlautin laughs with strangers seated among the tomes of Heidegger and John Locke, until he finds his place, under the works of Foucault, beside a table with two fresh stacks of his newest novel: The Free.
Just as the room quiets, Vlautin shakes the rain off his black denim coat while a tall, bookish man lugs a cardboard box full of chilled PBRs and Modelos into the room.
“There’s beer that needs to be drunk here, people,” someone says, followed by laughter and applause, as the cans travel from hand to hand among the dozen or so attendees.
Vlautin strikes a chord and smiles, his whole face wrapped up in a big, jolly grin. “Gosh, it’s good to be here,” he says. “Green Apple Books, I love it here. Don’t you love it here?” Beers raised, the crowd toasts the landmark home of bookworm delights.
“I wrote The Free as a kind of distress call to Camillus de Lellis, the patron saint of nurses,” Vlautin begins. “I was hoping I could shake him with my words—that he would hear me.”
Published this year, The Free follows the lives of three interwoven characters: Leroy Kervin, a badly wounded Iraq war veteran; Freddie McCall, the night man at Leroy’s group home; and Pauline Hawkins, a nurse who cares for Leroy. Through the characters, Vlautin explores the common, yet complex struggle of everyday Americans faced with the noxious obstacles of healthcare, the economy, and the heartbreaking effects of war.
“I’ve always wanted to write a book about nurses,” Vlautin says. “I can’t say I’ve had much personal luck with them, but whenever I was down and out, they were the ones who were always there.”
The idea for the novel took shape from a variety of experiences, Vlautin said. In the news, stories of men returning home from Iraq with severe brain injuries haunted him. The child of one of Vlautin’s close friends had suffered from brain trauma, and he had witnessed firsthand the toll of the injury. His girlfriend had also lost her job and soon after lost her health coverage. Together, the pictures and facts started to tell a bigger story.
“There were these ideas waking me up in the middle of the night—things I just couldn’t shake,” he said. “That’s usually when I know, whatever’s on my mind—it’s something worth writing about.”
Vlautin pauses and lets his eyes drift lost in thought among the rows of ancient philosophy. “I’ve put more work into this book than any other single project I’ve ever attempted,” he says.
A culmination of three-and-a-half long years of writing and editing, The Free is Vlautin’s fourth novel and the recipient of the February 2014 pick on the nationally esteemed Indie Next List. His former books, The Motel Life, Northline, and Lean on Pete have likewise received awards and critical praise across the country. Ursula K. Le Guin calls Vlautin “an unsentimental Steinbeck, a heartbroken Haruf,” and Ann Patchett writes The Free is “A portrait of American life that… turns a story of struggle into indispensable reading.”
Vlautin strums his guitar and throws a smile at the now sizable crowd packed against the book-lined walls. Along with his fiction work, Vlautin has co-created nine studio albums with his alt-country band Richmond Fontaine.
“All my books really start as songs,” he says. “These things that keep me up—I try and lay them to rest through music, but sometimes it won’t rest, and then the writing comes.”
He reads a short passage about Freddie McCall and then follows it with “43,” a melodious, boot-stomping song that is the wellspring of Freddie’s character. The packed-in crowd of bibliophiles dance in their chairs as Vlautin’s jangled chords and strained lyrics invoke the narrative of his character to life.
When he closes the song, he props the guitar on his leg. “Now I’ll stop for a quick drink—just a short union break here,” he laughs, taking a slug from the Pabst beer can.
Before returning to the subject of his book, Vlautin relates stories about growing up in Reno, Nevada, and his later years residing outside Portland, Oregon. The characters from throughout his life range from a fictional father in a junkyard to Buzz Martin, a famed singing logger who became known as the poet laureate of the timber industry in the 1960s. Despite the breadth of personalities, each character he reminiscences over appears grounded in both the world of hard, physical labor and the imaginative realm of the artist. With his more direct experiences, this reservoir of memories also fed into the development of The Free, Vlautin said.
“There is this Willy Nelson quote from my childhood—99 percent of us don’t ever meet the right woman, and that’s why there will always be so many songs about love and heartbreak in the world,” Vlaunter says. “Well, I was thinking, what if there’s this guy who had met that girl, but he can’t have her—what then?”
Throughout the novel, Vlautin plays with this question over and over again. Characters struggle to understand the boundaries and possibilities of their dreams and realities. With his mind so shattered by war, Leroy tries to answer Vlautin’s question by inventing a fantasy world in which the magic of science-fiction and the romance of his one true love are real and attainable. The novel’s theme of escapism is also one of the great pleasures Vlautin identifies in his own experience as a reader and writer.
The night passes quickly as Vlautin shifts from reading his book aloud to playing a song to storytelling and joking with his fans. Many of those huddled inside the warm athenaeum of Platonic forms and Russian fairytales are gulping down the last suds of their second or third beers.
When asked if he’s working on a new project, Vlautin grins and hesitates to say anything beyond, “Yes, there’s a new book I’m working on about a cowboy who pulls his own teeth out.”
Vlautin dedicates the last song of the night, “The Kid from Belmont Street,” to Casey Jarman, a quiet, laid-back man in the front row who serves McSweeney’s The Believer magazine as its managing editor.
The two writers met six years ago in Oregon when Jarman, then a reporter for Portland’s Willamette Weekly, was interviewing Vlautin for the paper. Conducted over a table of beers at a local pub, the interview felt more like a friendly conversation, Jarman said.
“He has a real appreciation for regular people, which is something at the heart of all his books,” Jarman says. “The deep empathy he seems to have for every character he has ever written—even the unsavory ones—is a direct result of the way Willy looks at the world. He looks for the good in people, and when you talk to him you come away feeling a little more interesting or “fucking cool,” as Willy might put it. I feel lucky to call him a friend. He is one fucking cool dude.”
Jarman raises what’s left of his beer first to Vlautin and then to the many scattered faces standing and seated behind him. A slow, intimate song, the guitar’s melody holds the entire room in a quiet, deep-breathed moment that seems to drift beyond or outside time. Then the show comes to a close and Vlautin’s stack of books one by one slip away in the hands of his listeners who ruminate and mingle and slowly make their way back to the rain.
His fourth appearance at Green Apple since his debut novel, Vlautin and the owners of the bookshop are already looking forward to when he’ll return to enchant San Franciscans again.
“I’ve worked here for more than twenty years,” says Pete Mulvihill, co-owner of Green Apple Books. “And this is the only event where all three owners of Green Apple showed up to see an author. He’s a special guy. What can I say? We love Willy.”
Michael Shufro is a journalist, poet, storyteller, and playwright—in short, a writer. He worked as the Santa Rosa Correspondent for The Press Democrat, a then New York Times company. Michael’s writing has also appeared in the North Bay Bohemian among other publications. He is currently at work on Blunderboar, a play about a depression-era family of circus performers struggling to recover their memories lost in Time. Michael resides in San Francisco. Send Michael an email.