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Originally published Thursday, April 22, 2010 at 7:04 PM

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Book review

'Lean on Pete': A teenage boy hammered by fate narrates Willy Vlautin's new novel

Oregon writer-musician Willy Vlautin traces the road trip of a teenage boy hammered by fate, in his new novel, "Lean on Pete."

Special to The Seattle Times

Author appearance

Willy Vlautin

Vlautin reads from "Lean on Pete," 7 p.m. Wednesday, Elliott Bay Book Co., 1521 10th Ave., Seattle; free (206-624-6600 or www.elliottbaybook.com).

At the opening of the new novel by Oregon writer-musician Willy Vlautin ("The Motel Life," "Northline"), 15-year-old narrator Charley Thompson and his father have just moved from Spokane to Portland. Charley's mother long ago deserted them. His father finds a job at a warehouse and seems content with his current lot, whereas Charley is anything but.

Being new to the city, he has not yet made friends. His father spends his spare time with his new girlfriend, leaving Charley alone for days at a time with no money for food. Although a good kid at heart, he's reduced to stealing from grocery stores. Being a talented runner, he always manages to escape.

Eventually, Charley lands a job at Portland Meadows Racetrack, working as a stable boy for a callous, ill-tempered, septuagenarian horse trainer named Del, who pays him only sporadically.

Nonetheless, at Del's place, Charley considers his time well spent, for he has finally made his first friend — an aged, broken-down horse, Lean on Pete. In time, Charley comes to suspect Del of doping his horses to win races.

Soon his father's death leaves Charley homeless. As if that's not enough, he discovers Del is preparing to send Lean on Pete to a Mexican slaughterhouse.

Charley can't allow that. He steals Del's pickup, loads Lean on Pete and starts driving. His destination is Wyoming, a thousand miles away, where he hopes to reconnect with a barely remembered aunt, his sole remaining relative. The only catch is he has neither her address nor the city's name.

Before long, the truck breaks down and Charley begins walking, with Lean on Pete in tow. In the road journey that follows, he has harrowing encounters with alcoholics, drug addicts, misfits and the police, but experiences sporadic acts of human kindness as well.

Survival is difficult, but Charley perseveres, pausing occasionally to rest and share his troubles with his equine companion, as though the poor beast were human.

In "Lean on Pete" (Harper Perennial, 304 pp, $13.99), 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. He fakes his name, carries no identification, steals regularly, and answers most questions with, "I don't know."

In the real world, such suspicious behavior would inevitably bring modern law-enforcement technology to bear, resulting in his swift capture.

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?

Bharti Kirchner's latest novel is "Pastries."

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