Monday, 5 September 2011

Willy Vlautine - Northline


I’ve just finished reading my signed copy of the short novel Northline by American author and front-man of band Richmond Fontaine, Willy Vlautin. It is a simple and yet powerful story of the damaged and self-damaging life of Allison Johnson, and it seems to me that as a male, Vlautin has empathised with and realised effectively in his narrative the female voice and perspective. There is simplicity in the telling of this everyday girl’s life that is typically American - though it isn’t Carveresque, for example, in that it isn’t pared back to that ordinariness – which is realised through the naturalistic dialogue and strong sense of place, essentially Las Vegas and Reno, as well as bars, beer parties and shopping malls.

The story is full of painful and violent episodes but the overriding theme is one of hope and endeavour, these latter positive attributes found in the kindnesses and support from various disparate people Allison meets on her escape to a better life.

There isn’t a distinctive literary style other than direct and simple narrative. There is the literary ruse, however, of Allison talking with her film hero and secret lover Paul Newman, someone who supports her most in times of need. At these times, the references to various characters and scenes from what appears to be most of his films sounds a little too contrived [apart from the fact he speaks to her!], but it does provide a narrative thread.

Most effective are the juxtapositions of Allison’s painful falls and optimistic retrievals. A particularly dramatic one is where Allison is raped – a situation she has in some ways fatalistically placed herself [though there is no authorial justification for the rape, and its brutal description speaks for itself] – and this is set two chapters later against Allison going for a telesales job and meeting Penny who is as ordinary and real as an average person can be and yet her plain speaking, encouragements and simple kindnesses provide, in the circumstances, a powerful alternative experience in a difficult life.

Richmond Fontaine - The High Country

This is by way of mentioning Richmond Fontaine’s tenth album The High Country which also tells a story of damaged lives and the pursuit of healing. The songstory tells of a mechanic and auto-parts counter sales girl who have painful histories and also a secret love that prompts them to escape the dark world in which they live.

It’s clear the high regard I have for Vlautin as a storyteller [and his first novel The Motel Life has just been made into a film starring Kris Kristofferson] and this album certainly conveys the dark atmosphere and pain – with some sardonic humour – of that love affair and life. And it is for this atmospheric telling that I would recommend the album: spoken word narratives, like opener Inventory, are mirrored by sparse but beautiful guitar melodies and there is often a captivating aural tension in the darkness of the words and the beauty of the instrumental.

Then there are the full songs, those that are the band Richmond Fontaine rather than an actor’s or actress’s voice, and these too have their narratives with introducing new characters and/or advancing the plot. But it can be hard to always follow the storyline, and as a listener I don’t think you are always sure if you should be concentrating on the story or the music. There is also the fact, for me, that there are no stand-out tunes, though there is the recurring and haunting melody that does accompany the spoken narratives. This isn’t a criticism, it’s just an acknowledgement that this album is working on both these levels and there is a compromise, though perhaps Vlautin would dispute that notion and see it more as a creative duality.

The storyline, by the way, is neatly outlined in the track listing so if you don’t want to know it before listening, look away now:

1. Inventory
2. The Girl On The Logging Road
3. The Chainsaw Sea
4. Let Me Dream Of The High Country
5. The Mechanic Falls In Love With The Girl
6. The Mechanic’s Life
7. Angus King Tries To Leave The House
8. The Meeting On The Logging Road
9. Claude Murray’s Breakdown
10. The Eagles Lodge
11. Driving Back To The Chainsaw Sea
12. Lost In The Trees
13. On A Spree
14. Deciding To Run
15. I Can See A Room
16. The Escape
17. Leaving

This isn’t a concept album and it isn’t trying to deliver a Tommy or similar! I think in the context of Vlautin as established and effective author, this is an interesting and entertaining element in his, and the band’s, gentle pushing of boundaries. I am naturally looking forward to the band playing in Exeter later this month and it will be interesting to see how this music is performed on stage and if it will be a significant advantage to know the story beforehand. I suspect that is the case [not that I will be able to know different] and this in itself is interesting in considering the history and purpose of telling a story because the minstrel’s tale should really be immediate?


  1. This sounds interesting-especially the novel which I'd really like to read. Is it easy to get hold of?

  2. Many on amazon - some very cheap used paperbacks. Often compared with Steinbeck which I think overstates, but I can see the link in terms of 'damaged' characters.

  3. Cheers. Will have a look for it online. The music sounds interesting too. I'm intrigued by the story.