Lean on Pete

When it comes to fiction, child narrators are often as welcome as toddlers in a fine restaurant. You hope they won’t interrupt your meal with their high-pitched voices, and you doubt they’ll stop being precious long enough to try a dish that isn’t heavy on the cheese. This month, I’ve had the pleasure of discovering two writers who have successfully adopted this challenging point-of-view: Their protagonists might not be old enough to drive, but they sure know how to make the story move.

Willy Vlautin’s Lean on Pete (Harper Perennial, 2010) came to my attention via the Most Excellent Hannah Tinti, editor of One Story, who described it as reminiscent of Raymond Carver. With apologies to Vlautin, who has said that reading Carver changed his life, I must admit that for me, the evocation of Saint Ray normally elicits a sigh as long as a writing-workshop conference table. But Hannah knows a thing or two about fictional children and new writers (her novel, The Good Thief, is about a one-handed 12-year-old). As it turns out, Vlautin is not so new—Lean on Pete is the author’s third novel, and it’s time we all noticed him.

On the list of Most Traumatic Events in a Teenager’s Life, moving to another town ranks right up there with full-body acne, and Lean on Pete begins with a classic relocation. Fifteen-year-old Charley Thompson and his father, a single dad and forklift operator, are newcomers to Portland, Oregon. With his father working the graveyard shift and disappearing for days, Charley passes the time by running—he’s keeping fit in hopes of playing football when high school starts in the fall. But the similarities between Charlie and your typical American teen end there: Often left to fend for himself, Charlie must resort to shoplifting groceries; at night, with only a television for company, he obsessively checks on the windows and locks.

For a time, his world seems to open when he lies about his age and gets a job at the horse track helping Del Montgomery, the moody owner of an overworked racehorse named Lean on Pete. Sadly, it’s not long before the boy’s luck begins to wither. The narrative follows his attempts to survive after the Johnsons run into grave trouble and this latchkey kid finds himself keyless. Desperate, Charlie embarks on a road trip to Wyoming in search of the aunt he hasn’t seen in four years.

If this all sounds unbearably grim, rest assured that no matter how many times Charley falls from one fresh hell into another, hope is never banished. Vlautin’s prose, as bare as Charley’s refrigerator, lends itself well to a teen whose priorities have been whittled down to the two nouns that really matter: food and shelter. (Never have I been so invested in a character’s hunt for SpaghettiOs.) The author’s use of short, declarative sentences not only reflects our observant hero’s habit of making quick assessments but also indicates a universe of repressed memories. Once in a while, I longed for Charley to break out of that carefully controlled voice, especially when an overflow of emotion and violence called for it, but it’s to the writer’s credit that the story never ventures into melodrama, not even in the many scenes where Charley talks to the racehorse about his dreams for the two of them.

Though it’s neither a genre hopper nor a tale set in a foreign country—characteristics I’ve vowed to honor in my reading picks—Lean on Pete is transporting. It’s transporting in the way that the last leg of the Triple Crown can be when there’s a clear view of the homestretch, and you really have someone to root for.


A Girl Made of Dust

Continuing the theme of children in peril, A Girl Made of Dust (Grove, 2010), by Nathalie Abi-Ezzi, puts a civilian face on Lebanon’s civil war. In 1982 in Ein Douwra, a Christian village not far from the divided city of Beirut, eight-year-old Ruba struggles to interpret the familial effects of the fighting: Her father takes to his armchair with a handful of worry beads and a memory he cannot shake; her mother cooks incessantly and badly; her brother collects discarded artillery shells as a hobby; her grandmother is convinced that the Virgin Mary has forsaken her; and her uncle is looking suspiciously well dressed for a man who lives in the midst of the danger zone.

Abi-Ezzi, who moved to England from Lebanon as a child, has an elegant storytelling style that conveys the surreal act of day-to-day living when home is a place so bombarded that “half the country’s living in their basements.” For the most part, the author’s descriptions are spot-on from a girl’s frame of reference, as when she speaks of Beirut as “spread out along the coast like grey and white Lego.” At other times, the lyricism jogs us out of the child’s perspective, but Abi-Ezzi makes up for these occasional lapses with a strong narrative that focuses on the dual mysteries of the patriarch’s depression and the uncle’s personal history. Despite the setting, the novel remarkably avoids political finger-pointing: Israelis, Palestinians, Syrians, and the Lebanese themselves all have their part to play, and Ruba, striving for an understanding beyond her years, leads us all the way to a redemptive conclusion.

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DIKA LAM was born in Canada and lives in Chicago. Her short fiction has appeared in numerous venues including Story, One Story, Scribner's Best of the Fiction Workshops 1999, This Is Not Chick Lit (Random House, 2006), and A Stranger Among Us (OV Books, 2008). She was a New York Times Fellow at New York University, a fellow at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts and a Tennessee Williams Scholar at the Sewanee Writers' Conference. A nominee for Canada's Journey Prize, she is also a winner of the Bronx Writers' Center Chapter One contest.

10 responses to “Love & Squalor: The Kids Are 
Not All Right”

  1. Judy Prince says:

    Dika, because of your rich, evocatively-detailed review of Nathalie AbEzzi’s _A Girl Made of Dust_, I’ve ordered it from amazon.co.uk. Once again, I appreciate your excellent review style and tone. Thank you for keeping us up with books we might have overlooked.

  2. Simon Smithson says:

    I don’t think I’ve ever read a book written from a child’s narrative perspective (yes. This is where I admit I’ve never read Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close), and I’m curious to see how it could be done well. I mean, I’m sure it can be, and I’m going to trust your judgment and experience over mine, Dika, as I’m pulling my conclusions out of the sky, basically, but… it does smack of ‘Never work with children or animals.’

    “When it comes to fiction, child narrators are often as welcome as toddlers in a fine restaurant. You hope they won’t interrupt your meal with their high-pitched voices, and you doubt they’ll stop being precious long enough to try a dish that isn’t heavy on the cheese.”

    This is exactly what I would have assumed.

  3. Dika Lam says:

    Argh! I meant to say that Hannah’s The Good Thief was told in third-person, but focused on a main character who is a child. This is what I get for writing past midnight. I should be charged with the offense of Writing While Tired and have my reviewer’s license taken away.

    Judy, I do hope you’ll enjoy A Girl Made of Dust. Thanks for your support.

    Simon, I actually believe there are a number of YA books that handle the child’s POV exceptionally well. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time comes to mind (though it was released here in the U.S.A. as a crossover title). The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, by Sherman Alexie, also has an addictive first-person narrator…

    • Simon Smithson says:

      Oh my God! How did I just completely and totally forget every YA novel I ever read growing up? For some reason, that entire genre slipped out of my frame of reference when I was writing that comment…

  4. Judy Prince says:

    Dika, just so TNBers know of your own fiction, in this case a short story in _This Is Not Chick Lit_, here’s an excerpt from Margaret Quamme’s book review in the Columbus Dispatch.com:

    “Most delightfully surprising is The Seventy-two-Ounce Steak Challenge by Dika Lam, who has published only a few short stories in small magazines. Her touching and hilarious story follows two Chinese-Canadian sisters on a working vacation in Calgary, Alberta, where one of them starts down the path that will take her into becoming “the champion you know and love ? winner of the International Matzo-Ball-Eating Contest, title-holder of the Conch Fritter Invitational, the girl who downed nine sticks of butter in five minutes.”

    I’ve ordered _This Is Not Chick Lit_ from amazon.co.uk so that I can read your short story.

    Here are some surprising facts about many more females than males reading fiction, as reported on the website In These Times:

    Why Hemingway Is Chick-Lit

    Women read more fiction than men.

    By Lakshmi Chaudhry

    ‘ “When women stop reading, the novel will be dead,” declared Ian McEwan in the Guardian last year. The British novelist reached this rather dire conclusion after venturing into a nearby park in an attempt to give away free novels. The result?

    Only one “sensitive male soul” took up his offer, while every woman he approached was “eager and grateful” to do the same.

    Unscientific as McEwan’s experiment may be, its thesis is borne out by a number of surveys conducted in Britain, the United States and Canada, where men account for a paltry 20 percent of the market for fiction. Unlike the gods of the literary establishment who remain predominantly male—both as writers and critics—their humble readers are overwhelmingly female.’

  5. Dika Lam says:

    Thanks for picking up This Is Not Chick Lit. There are a lot of terrific stories in that anthology. You know, the issue of men not buying books is a hot topic. Are they too busy playing video games? Are their wives/girlfriends/moms doing all the buying for the family? I can’t imagine spotting Ian McEwan handing out free books!

    You grew up Down Under, correct? As someone who grew up in a Commonwealth country, I’m curious to know what you read growing up…

    • Judy Prince says:

      Dika, women buying more novels than men was a hot topic in 19th century England, as well. Maybe the blokes were playing darts in the pubs.

      BTW, my mum was born and raised in Vancouver BC. She always described it as heaven on earth, but I’ve not been there. Is that where you were brought up, as well?

  6. Dika Lam says:

    Alas, I was born and raised in the Great Lakes, but British Columbia is truly gorgeous.

    As for men reading or not reading, this literary agency blog begs to differ:


    • Judy Prince says:

      Dika, I was born and raised in Michigan, so we’re midwesterners together. And I lived and worked in Chicago some 30 years, a beautiful city.

      Thanks for the url, Dika. I’d like to get hold of actual statistics on females and males buying novels. As it is, it seems that everyone’s speculating every which way without the ballast of facts. Fascinating books on women’s fiction in a historical context are available, but I’m not seeing good research on present female/male fiction-reading patterns and writing patterns.

  7. Judy Prince says:

    Dika, your fiction-writing is fantastic. I’m a few pages into your short story “The Seventy-two-Ounce Steak Challenge” (anthologised in THIS IS NOT CHICK LIT, ed Elizabeth Merrick) and so love your ripe brilliant funny style; e.g. this excerpt about your sister: ” ‘The secret to water-gun races,’ she assured me, expertly hosing the smile of a clown until the balloon atop its head exploded, ‘is to pick the most exhausted balloon.’ I was familiar with the philosophy. Before I met Lewis, it was usually how I had managed to secure dates.”

    I also love this snippet from your short story “Cascades” in blog ONE STORY: http://one-story.com/index.php?page=story&story_id=21

    “Professor Mertz of Archaeology was the first to go—the headlights of his abandoned Volvo silvering the covered bridge near campus, his body pulsing to the surface of the Trocadero River just downstream from the place where he first taught us how to sift dirt. Professor Kleinman of Art History was next, leaving a postmodern blot on the stones near Cliffside Fraternity, ruining not only the view but the boys’ annual Halloween Blowout Bash. At Devil’s Hollow Gorge, Professor Livermore surrendered to gravity in the leaden rain of that autumn Monday, a sheaf of essays in the briefcase he escorted on his forty-foot plunge down to the creekbed—the scene of much bikinied joy on spring days. After the police investigation, the papers were returned to their rightful owners in surprisingly readable condition. Howard Tan was touched to see that in his last act of compassion, Livermore gave him a B+.”

    Your tone and figurative comparisons reminds me at times of Max Beerbohm’s ZULEIKA DOBSON which you can read (Project Gutenberg), here: http://www.gutenberg.org/catalog/world/readfile?fk_files=1048584

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