Books

The Horse by Willy Vlautin review – funny, shocking and heartfelt contender for book of the year

Vlautin writes with great empathy about the underbelly of the American dream, about the disenfranchised and struggling people of everyday life

The Horse by Willy Vlautin

I’m a sucker for writers who use their own personal experiences in their novels. We should never, of course, mistake the central character of a story for the storyteller, but there’s something wonderfully authentic about a novel that has its seed in real life, adding a tangible veracity to the book.

So it is with Willy Vlautin’s The Horse. American author Vlautin has a cult following of dedicated fans, and is one of my favourite writers. He writes about the underbelly of the American dream, about the disenfranchised and struggling people of everyday life, but he does so with great depth and humanity. 

He is also an acclaimed musician, having been in alt-country bands Richmond Fontaine and The Delines. Strangely, The Horse is his first novel to directly tackle the world of music, but that adds great richness to this short book as a result. The story revolves around 65-year-old Al Ward, an alcoholic country singer and songwriter, who’s living alone at an abandoned mine in the high Nevada desert trying to dry out.

One day he finds an old and blind horse outside his tumbledown shack and worries about how to save it. He has no contact with the outside world and his car won’t start. The snowy weather closes in and he fears that coyotes or a mountain lion will get the beleaguered animal. Interspersed with this we’re told the story of Al’s life, his early days learning guitar and playing in casino bands, his first flirtations with booze, his endless shows and touring, some terrific highs and some real lows. He goes from being blindly optimistic with money in his pocket to trying to pawn his precious guitars, and all points in between.

Vlautin’s prose style is deceptively simple – it takes a lot of skill to write a book that is this easy to read – and there is a huge amount of heart and empathy on display here. His human and animal characters struggle against the vagaries of life, but hopefully pull through with a little help and care.

Funny, shocking and heartfelt, this is easily my book of the year so far.

Doug Johnstone is an author and journalist.

The Horse by Willy Vlautin

The Horse by Willy Vlautin is out now (Faber & Faber, £16.99). You can buy it from The Big Issue shop on Bookshop.org, which helps to support The Big Issue and independent bookshops.

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