Willy Vlautin writes novels about people all alone in the wind. His prose is direct and complex in its simplicity, and his stories are sturdy and bighearted and full of lives so shattered they shimmer. All of his novels are good, but Lean on Pete is his best ... His prose is strong, his storytelling is honest, and he sticks to it scene by scene. By the time Lean on Pete reaches its sweet but unsentimental end, Charley Thompson isn't a character in a novel, but a boy readers have come to love. Lean on Pete riveted me. Reading it, I was heartbroken and moved; enthralled and convinced. This is serious American literature.
Lean on Pete is the story of a boy and his horse, but it is never heart-warming – it ranges in tone from desperate to merely painful – and, while fascinating, it is never entertaining or redemptive. But if you want an unadorned portrait of American life (at least in some places) at the beginning of the 21st century, this is the book for you ... Vlautin's eye for detail is sharp: every character is distinctly drawn and memorable. Each of Charley's encounters has the authentic feel of two lives intersecting and then diverging; they leap off the page as individuals with motives and backstories ... Given the ambition of Lean on Pete and Willy Vlautin's skill at limning character, it's something of a puzzle that the novel isn't more affecting. One problem is that Charley has, and maybe can have, no actual relationships.
Vlautin transforms what might have been a weepy, unbelievable TV-movie of a novel into a tough-and-tender account of a boy, a big-hearted horse, and a mostly unforgiving world. What Daniel Woodrell does for the hardscrabble Ozarks, Vlautin does for the underside of the New West. Unforgettable.
...the writing is spare and straightforward, with few descriptions and hardly any room for introspection. There is intensity in Vlautin’s narration, and also beauty and power ... Parts of the road trip strain credulity. Charley has frequent brushes with the law, but each time manages to escape and arrive safely in the next town ... Despite these flaws, we find ourselves sympathetic toward Charley and quietly root for him to succeed. Many of the supporting players, such as Del, also make a vivid impression. But Vlautin’s major accomplishment lies in posing a damning question: How could we, as a society, have allowed this to happen?
Reading a Willy Vlautin novel feels a lot like sitting in the bar talking with Willy Vlautin. And it feels a lot like listening to the songs he writes with his band, Richmond Fontaine. The author's previous two novels, The Motel Life and Northline, shared stories with a couple of Richmond Fontaine songs. So does his newest, Lean on Pete, but in this one Vlautin makes room for even more bad luck to plague his main character. In his books, though, bad luck always comes with good stories ... one of the great things about his writing is that you believe in the good guys just as much as the bad. You believe every bad thing that happens to Charley, but you also believe the whole time that things are going to turn out all right.
Charley’s trek across the West, occasionally on horseback, is dominated by an unbelievable stretch of luck: men appear to dispense food and money, miraculously uninhabited trailers contain washers and dryers, and his hitchhiking is eerie, but not dangerous. Still, Vlautin’s characters, despite their unrealistic arcs, shine with his sparse style. It might be difficult to believe Charley’s bottomless cache of silver linings, but it’s remarkably easy to root for the kid.