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.