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The Barcelona Review: Book Reviews

Book coverDon't Skip Out On Me
by Willie Vlautin
Faber & Faber, 2018

Willie Vlautin has managed to deliver a tender, heartfelt novel that eschews sentimentality even as it may bring tears. He does it by telling a simple tale, full of everyday details, which at first may seem too commonplace to sustain interest, but slowly builds, page by page, to pull the reader keenly into the lives of the characters.

At center is Horace Hoppe, a 21-year-old farm hand in Tonopah, Nevada. He is half-white, half-Paiute Indian, abandoned as a child by his Paiute mother, and taken in by a Mr. and Mrs. Reese, who run a sheep farm. Horace appears to be a good guy, who works well on the farm where he leads a solitary life. But Horace has one burning desire: to be a world-famous boxer. It is a dream he will pursue to the end. Thinking that Paiutes are not known for being good fighters, he decides to try and pass as Mexican and so dons the name Hector Hidalgo. 

Mr. Reese does not encourage him, but neither does he discourage him. When he sees that Horace is determined in his pursuit, he realizes he must let him leave the farm and discover for himself if he has what it takes.

I kept picturing Mr. Reese as a sort of older version Longmire, from the TV series: soft-spoken, kind, gentle, hard-working, tough, never complaining. We are drawn as much into his world as we are into Horace's. A simple breakfast in the town's local cafe, chitchatting with his buddy, who keeps pushing him (without success) to retire, endears you to him all the more.

Horace heads to Arizona where he stays with a distant, unwelcoming aunt. He works out steadily, tries to maintain a healthy diet, and tapes up photos of the Mexican boxers he wishes to emulate.  There is no doubt in his mind he will be famous one day. But he freezes when up against the ropes in the ring and must overcome this psychological block. He can deliver a hard enough punch to take out his opponent, if the gets the chance, but he gets beat all to hell every match.

This is about all the hopes and dreams one has in youth, never doubting that all can be achieved.  It is about living a solitary life, fueled by yearning. It pulls the heartstrings to read of Horace alone in his dark room trying to learn Spanish from tapes, and feeling guilty for eating fast food, which is about the only comfort he has now that he has thrown away his heavy-metal CDs because heavy metal is “white people’s music.” It is also about aging, about farming, and about goodness. A touching little gem of a novel.  J.A.  

© 2018 tbr

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