In a world and time rife with Big Problems, most of us are paralyzed by the notion that no matter how deeply we want to change things we are helpless to do so. I have long held, however, that none of us are as helpless as we believe: we have the opportunity each and every day to make a difference in the life of at least one other person.
The Free by Willy Vlautin is a celebration, from start to finish, of exactly that theme. Each of the characters around whom the narrative revolves are largely powerless for a host of reasons. They are held captive by tragedy or circumstance or the demands others place on them. They are, in short, rather a sad lot of people, living small lives and, for the most part, just going through the motions. You know, like most of us do.
Leroy Kervin, a veteran of the war in Iraq who has lived in a group home since receiving a traumatic brain injury, undertakes an act of self-determination that leaves him hospitalized in a coma. His mind is working, but locked in, and we are made privy to how he processes the bits and pieces of fantasy, reality, and memory that are still his to own.
Pauline Hawkins is a nurse at this hospital, and her tender ministrations to her patients belie the disconnect she feels from life and the people in it with whom she has arm's length relationships, outside her job.
And Freddie McCall is a night man at the home at which Leroy lived, who holds down that job as well as a second one at a hardware store. His wife has left him and taken his children. He is weighed down in enormous debt and is in danger of losing his home and his moral compass, which has always held true north .
The Free is the story of how these three people matter. This is one of those quiet, understated novels that doesn't start with a bang or have a plot line that rises to a heart-stopping crescendo. It is rooted firmly in the mundane, but rises above that with subtlety and deep truth.
A Harper Perennial Book