Lean on Pete by Willy Vlautin
Published by Harper Perennial, an imprint of Harper Collins
Life has been tough for Charley. His mother has been gone – not dead, but not around – for as long as he can remember, and his father is not the most reliable of parents. In addition to moving them around a lot and cutting off contact between Charley and his aunt, Charley’s father doesn’t always come home, sometimes preferring to stay out all night, or even for days at a time, with lady friends, leaving Charley short of both food and money. To fill his time before school starts, Charley begins hanging out down by the racetrack, where he picks up a job with Del, an ornery old man who treats his horses like commodities – and not very valuable ones at that. Charley, though, bonds quickly with one of Del’s horses, Lean on Pete. When his father is brutally assaulted by the husband of one of the women he is sleeping with, it is in Pete that Charley finds solace.
“Lean on Pete” was not the easiest book to read. Charley’s life was a very difficult one, and he was in a position in which no 15 year old should be placed, especially after his father was hospitalized. There was nobody around to take care of him, nobody who really even knew he needed taking care of. He found himself essentially homeless because he was too afraid to return to the scene of his father’s assault. Eventually he found himself entirely on his own. The way that Del and others around him used and abused their horses, too, was extremely difficult to read. Lean on Pete and the other horses were not living beings to Del, but instruments to make him money. He was less purposefully cruel than neglectful to the point of cruelty. It is hard to know whether or not to recommend this to horse lovers, because Charley’s connection with Pete was very moving, but a lot of horses are treated very badly throughout the book
I tried over and over while reading this to convince myself that this book was set in the past, that these sorts of things couldn’t happen in modern U.S. society, but given the discussion that Charley had with his father about possibly getting cell phones (an idea that his somewhat-paranoid father nixed) just couldn’t support this.
Vlautin matches his prose perfectly to his subject, with a high degree of realism that made me feel more that I was experiencing Charley’s story than that I was reading it. This work of fiction could easily have been memoir, for how convincingly real it was.
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