Horace Hopper is the feisty protagonist in Willy Vlautin’s latest novel “Don’t Skip Out on Me.” Horace is a former foster kid with an identity crisis, half-Paiute, half-Irish, raised in Nevada by aging sheep ranchers, with dreams of being a championship boxer. To reinvent himself, Horace leaves the safety of his foster parents for the streets of Tucson and Las Vegas, but learns he can’t outrun his past or his destiny. Mary Sojourner has more in KNAU’s latest Southwest Book Review.
The young writer stood quietly in front of us in the old public library. He wore faded jeans and a threadbare plaid flannel shirt. It was 2009 and Willy Vlautin was about to read from his first novel, “Motel Life.” He began, “The night it happened I was drunk, almost passed out, and I swear to god a bird came flying through my motel window.”
I was hooked. I’d known drunk. I knew low-rent motels. And, I knew improbabilities. I’ve followed Vlautin’s work for nine years since that evening, losing myself in five more of his tough, elegantly written and bone-deep compassionate novels. His latest, “Don’t Skip Out on Me,” carries the young Horace Hopper, from a beleaguered sheep Ranch, “sixty miles from Tonopah”; from antelope and sage, pine and mountains; and from Reese family’s loving foster care—in which he has been sheltered for years, to Tucson’s sun-blasted streets and nondescript boxing clubs.
Horace is 21, 5-feet-7, half white, half Paiute and 100 percent determined to become a championship boxer—a Mexican championship boxer. For the years he has followed the fights, he’s developed the most respect for fighters like Rafael Marquez, Julio Cesar Chavez, and his favorite, Erik Morales. He keeps a worn notebook—one section titled, “Log of Bad Dreams,” another “Getting Left in Tonopah,” and writes on its last page, “I will be somebody.” And that somebody, he re-names Hector Hidalgo.
Vlautin writes Horace/Hector’s training in the Eleventh Street Gym, a gloomy operation in a near-dead strip mall; his work in Maximo’s Used (and possibly boosted) Tire Shop; his valiant boxing matches—and his doomed efforts to learn Spanish. While Horace/Hector struggles to live his dream, Mr. Reese drives his aging body to do the ranch work he excelled at as a young man. He watches contemporary development threaten the generous paradise of his beloved land. Mrs. Reese fights her fears and longing for her foster son.
Vlautin understands that in contemporary America, Paradise does not exist—not in what used to be ranching country, not in what’s left of the original Southwestern cities, not in old peoples’ so-called Golden Years; and not in a young man’s or woman’s dreams in a society that increasingly rewards mostly scam and greed. He knows that the only possibility of any kind of redemption for so many of us lies in what’s left of the wild earth, and our trust in the tender connections between us.