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What a brilliant, unique narrative via the perspectives of three characters, one primarily via an allegorical dream.
Each intersect at the hospital where Leroy has been taken from a group home after falling down a flight of stairs after having a momentary state of suicidal clarity out of brain trauma suffered via a roadside bomb in Iraq.
"... that night, for the first time since the explosion, he woke with clarity. Memories flooded into him. He could recall his routines, the week's menu, what time he went to bed and which days he took a shower. He could remember his mother bringing him takeout food and sitting next to him while they watched TV. He could remember his girlfriend, her eyes and face, and the birthmark on her calf and her walking around in her underwear. He could suddenly recall the way she laughed, the sound of her voice when she was upset, the way she sneezed, and the way she sighed sadly when the alarm went off in the morning."
What was happening to him?
"He remembered suddenly the long months when every time he closed his eyes it felt like he was drowning in mud. And then there were periods when his thoughts fell into nothing but frustration and violence. How days would pass when every time he heard a door closing or opening he felt certain someone was coming to kill him. The fear of that would engulf him and when the fear passed, the fog would again come and he wouldn't be able to remember anything. ... Was this all his life was? Was this clarity just another illusion, a trick? He knew that most likely he would close his eyes and sleep would come and the clarity would disappear and the frustration, the bleak thoughts, and the fog would return. But at that moment, on that night, he had a window and he decided to escape through it."
"He decided he would kill himself."
Freddie is the night man at the "second-rate group home for disabled men in Washington State." He's unable to pay his bills though burning the candle at both ends with a day job running a paint store for a lazy, fat James-Dobson-junkie who inherited the store. After being left destitute by medical bills for one of his daughters and trying to keep his house, Freddie's wife takes both daughters out of state to run off with her lover. He is constantly afraid he will never make it out of this all-work, no-sleep state, lose everything and never have his daughters again.
Pauleen is the hospital night nurse with a fear of relationships, after having been abandoned by her mom when she was 5 and a boyfriend a few years back who didn't want marriage. She must drop in frequently on her mentally ill father. She learns much from her encounters with a young female runaway.
While Leroy's under intensive medical care, his nightmare is so very like a true dream (at least mine), the closest I've encountered in all of literature: varying places and times, sprinkled with reality overlaying a dream sequence in which he and his girlfriend are on the run from "The Free," a mixed military/militia group of "real" "patriots" trying to capture and kill them. But, it is his time spent with her again, his love for her via this life-like dreamworld that sets him free from the fog, the bleakness, the pain.
All three face their fears and take their own paths toward growth and a bit of redemption.
The dialogue is fresh, the main characters so likeable and the author does an admirable job narrating his book.
I give this 5+ stars and highly recommend it.
4 of 5 people found this review helpful
If you're a fan, you'll excuse Vlautin's practical fetishisation of the mid-western working poor; the majority of his novels, short stories and songs plough this furrow to great effect. The Free takes this theme a step further in its intricate weaving of a group of central characters, each written with a gut-wrenching empathy; one, a young wounded serviceman is written in the abstract realm of his comatose dreams.
Another whose story is expanded from a Richmand Fontaine song; a father struggling to pay for his family's needs and debts whilst physically displaced from the loved ones he needs, agrees to rent his basement to a local weed farmer. And a nurse who gives herself to the care of others over her closely guarded personal life.
Their stories touch or briefly run parallel to each other, each character unconciously supportive of another in their hardships. The story, as with Vlautin's others is well written and emotively read by the man himself.