Let me just start by saying that I have mixed feelings about this book. I wanted to like it more than I did, but I don’t feel that like is the right word for my response to “The Free.” I think the best way of putting it is that I appreciate it.
“The Free” by Willy Vlautin is, to me, characterized by an undercurrent of discontent and resignation. Vlautin’s characters are mostly unhappy with their lives — stuck, really, in lives that are rather grim, ordinary and mundane, distinguished only by their varying hardships.
There are three main characters, who are all connected, with one being the fulcrum point between the two others.
Leroy is a man who has come back to America from a deployment in Iraq, having been injured severely. He suffers from brain trauma and other physical impairments that have resulted in a long struggle to recover movement and speech. His recovery has limited potential. He will never be the same man who left for war, and he finally ended up in a group home for disabled men.
Freddie works in the group home where Leroy lives. He holds two jobs, the other being the sole remaining employee at a paint store whose owner is the son of the man who began the business. The son is letting the business fail, slowly but surely, and Freddie is barely making ends meet with the money he gets from both the paint store and the group home. He is always running late and barely functioning from lack of sleep.
When Leroy wakes up one day with an unaccustomed lucidity, he becomes terrified that it is temporary and that he will sink back into mental fog. After experiencing that clarity, he cannot bear to lose it again, and so, with his limited mobility, he painstakingly manages to set up an elaborate method of self-execution. Having failed to end his life, he ends up in the hospital, where is where Pauline, the third main character, works as a nurse.
Leroy has lost any will to recover or participate in life after his unsuccessful suicide. He can’t bear the pain, the misery, and the knowledge of being even more burdensome on his mother and the other people who care about him.
He creates a fantasy world for himself, and retreats into it entirely. His imaginary life involves meeting and falling in love with his real-life girlfriend, and the two of them continue on in a somewhat dystopian run for their lives. Even in his fantasy, he cannot escape fear and violence.
Freddie somehow manages to find time in his day to visit Leroy, out of a sense of guilt or obligation. He meets Pauline, Leroy’s nurse, but the two don’t interact much. They are only connected by being Leroy’s caretakers.
Pauline’s focus is on her patients, particularly one whom she wants to save from her current way of life. A girl named Jo comes to the hospital with abscesses in her legs from needle injections. She is a homeless runaway, and a reluctant junkie, living with a group of young men who encourage her to use drugs and then take advantage of her. Having gathered this much, Pauline makes it her personal mission to change Jo’s life.
Pauline has other obligations, however, including her mentally ill father. He has erratic shifts in mood, and refuses to take care of himself. She keeps him fed and tries to keep his home clean and livable, but he opposes her attempts and berates her, then begs her to forgive him.
Each of the three main characters seems to see his or her life as unchangeable. Leroy is just trying to escape his, but Freddie and Pauline are worn out and stretched too thin with trying to improve the lives of others, neglecting their own health and happiness. All they ever seem to do is sacrifice and self-deny.
All three refuse to acknowledge and deal with their own situations, instead just going through the motions, living one day to the next, finding very little enjoyment or fulfillment.
This might seem as though it could not end well, and I myself got a little discouraged with the direction in which things were going.
There is, however, redemption in the cards for these folks.
Though the title “The Free” is connected with a sort of Fascist regime in Leroy’s inner world, I believe it also refers to each of the characters as we near the ends of their stories.
They each finally realize that doing the same thing every day, year after year in some cases, never changing, is not working. Each of them makes a choice, a choice to seek and pursue their own happiness. In making these choices, they each become free.
While not quite heartwarming or cheerful, “The Free” is certainly thought-provoking and well-written. Vlautin gives us a clear look at some very real, very present, difficult-to-look-at issues within America’s middle class, and yet we come away from it with a sense of hope.