Tag Archives: american dream

The Night Always Comes: Willy Vlautin

One thing in my line of work that you find out is that most people act like they have more than they really do, that they’re better off than they really are. It’s always the same kind of people too. I’ve been doing this for over 25 years and it never changes. Rednecks and gangsters want to be rich but most of them aren’t rich. Rednecks with their trucks and gangsters with their SUVs and Cadillacs. And on the other side are the full-of-shit people trying to act white collar rich by driving BMWs and Mercedes and Audis.”

“I made a lot of mistakes and got greedy” so says 30-year-old Lynette. Lynette’s conclusion about her behaviour comes after a series of bad decisions taken over the course of two days. This dark bleak tale weaves together a complex tapestry of social and personal ills: poverty, gentrification, prostitution, burglary, assault, drug sales, bitter recriminations and the betrayal of friends and family. Willy Vlautin’s The Night Always Comes is a crime novel, but it’s also an examination of American life: those who work, living paycheck-to-paycheck–those who work multiple jobs to hobble together enough to survive; those who tread water but who will sink with just one financial hurdle that could send them out onto the street.

Lynette driving an old banger, holds two jobs (bakery, bar) and in the few hours left in the day, she’s also a prostitute. She lives in a rented house in Portland with her bitter chain-smoking, heavy-drinking mother and her developmentally disabled brother, Kenny–a child in a man’s body. Lynette’s father left years ago and has a brand new family. When the novel opens, Lynette has saved about 80,000 as a downpayment for the house her mother currently rents. The owner, who hasn’t fixed a thing in years, is giving them a ‘deal,’ and with massive gentrification changing the face of Portland, Lynette sees buying the house as an opportunity for stabilization. If they don’t buy, they will have to move which inevitably means a huge rent increase. Lynette’s credit sucks and so the plan is that her mother will get the loan.

As the sale moves closer, Lynette’s mother brings home a brand new car, bought on credit of course, and it’s this purchase that effectively sabotages the plan to buy the house. Unwilling to give up her plan to buy the house, and desperate to get more money, Lynette heads out into the night to collect an old debt from a fellow escort. From here, it’s all downhill as Lynette spirals from one bad decision to another, reconnecting with her past to solve her present problems. At first, author Willy Vlautin only reveals Lynette’s ambitions and she appears to be the hard-working voice of reason, the one person willing to anchor herself to her mother and brother and pull them out of poverty. Gradually, however, Lynette’s troubled past and her irrevocably damaged relationship with her mother is revealed. There’s a dark side to Lynette, and when she hits up her Johns for cash, it’s interesting that she treats the one who actually gives her money the worst. As Lynette sallies on into the night trying to gather together as much money as she can, she sinks into male-dominated, violent, predatory Lord of the Flies territory.

When the novel began with its descriptions of Lynette’s car starting after multiple tries, and Kenny being left in Lynette’s car while she works, all the misery felt a little overdone. But Lynette’s past (and present) float to the surface and her tired, damaged victimhood recedes, to reveal a powerful novel of greed, getting ahead and the twisted reality of the American Dream. There’s an underlying theme about money–how we fight to get it, but how we don’t understand its power, and as a result, how money runs people, not the other way around. “Why does it matter to feel bad about anything? Isn’t that the American Dream? Fuck over whoever is in your way and get what you want.” And this is the mantra for nearly all the characters in the book. Take or be taken. All relationships carry debt: debts to be repaid

It’s all fancy buildings and skinny people who look like they’re in magazines. I don’t know where they all come from, but they sure are coming, and then all you do is cross another street and there’s homeless people camping everywhere. They’re coming too. You can’t drive around Portland without seeing a hundred tents. People living in tents. Are they all on drugs? Are there that many people who are crazy and on drugs. I always used to ask myself, ‘why would a man in his twenties want to live on the street when he could work?’ I mean, my god, what’s happening? For a long time I didn’t understand it. Why? Why would they live that way? It seems so awful, so miserable, but you know now I think I’m starting to understand. The answer is .. why not? Why should they bust their asses all day when they know no matter what they do, they’ll never get ahead. And why should they pay 300,000 for a falling down shack when they don’t have to. And when it starts raining and getting cold and they get sick, well they’ll be the first ones to march up to any hospital and get taken in. Me? I have to pay for my shitty health insurance and all the goddamn copays and I have to pay out the nose for anything that’s not covered. And there’s a lot of things not covered. And then some homeless creep who lives in a tent just goes to the hospital and gets everything for free. Politicians get healthcare for free and bums do too. But of course not us. How does that make sense? How does that make you want to get out of bed in the morning and go to work?

At the bar where she works, Lynette hands out free drinks, her co-workers hand out free drinks and it never occurs to them to wonder who is paying for all that free booze. Its currency (favours, freebies for friends) is all taken for granted. But then again, there’s so much resentment towards employers, that it’s justified. But other things are currency in the novel too–sex, relationships, power and violence. These are all currencies used to get ahead–to get what various characters want. In one part of the novel, my favourite part, Lynette goes to visit a man who repossesses cars, and he delivers an amazing soliloquy on the stupidity of people who, refusing to be content with what they have, seek credit, larger mortgages, bigger homes, as they try to move up in American society only to lose everything. Rodney has seen it all and knows that just because you drive around in a fancy car or live in fancy house doesn’t mean that you have two nickels to rub together. From his viewpoint, you can’t judge a person’s financial health from the trappings of wealth. Then there’s Lynette’s mother, a woman who’s simply worn out by life and the emotional cost of taking care of a developmentally disabled child: she sees that the struggle to keep afloat or get ahead is pointless: “No one wants to hire a worn-out, middle-aged fatso.”

Thing is Lynette, I’m getting mean. Not angry like you, but just mean and bitter. And on the TV all these rich sons of bitches they just talk bullshit and take whatever they want. They take and take and then when they get themselves in a pickle, we bail them out, so why would they care about anything but themselves. The politicians don’t give a shit times a thousand, all they want to do is stay elected and when they get reelected, they still don’t get anything done. They don’t seem to want to help anybody and they have no backbone. They just argue and blame and take money and get great healthcare while they do it. Those cocksuckers get free healthcare and we don’t. They don’t even care about our health. That says a lot doesn’t it. So why vote? I’m serious, why? Because they don’t do anything. They don’t help and if they don’t help then what’s the point of any of them? She looked at Lynette and took another drink.

Audio review copy. (punctuation of speeches may not be perfect)




Filed under Fiction, Vlautin Willy

White Ivy: Susie Yang

“Lives are like rivers. Eventually they go where they must, not where we want them to.”

In Susie Yang’s, White Ivy, an incredible tale of identity, desire, obsession, twisted values and social climbing, Ivy Lin is the daughter of Chinese immigrants. When Shen and Nan Lin come to America, they leave 2 year old Ivy behind in China with her Chinese grandmother. Ivy is 5 when she finally joins her financially struggling parents while Ivy’s grandmother Meifeng joins the family 2 years later. Ivy never really recovers from the separation from her parents and then the separation from her beloved grandmother. She experiences “a terrible loneliness that turned her permanently inward,” and becomes a “secretive child.” It’s with penny-pinching Meifeng that Ivy learns to shoplift and steal, and so her life splinters into strands– a blend of her transplanted Chinese grandmother’s advice, her parents’ ambition for her to succeed in America at all costs, and her desire to leave her Chinese roots behind.

Thanks to her father’s employment, Ivy is able to attend an elite Boston school. It’s at the prep school that she sets eyes on “a certain type of clean-cut all-American boy,” Gideon Speyer. In Gideon, “she found the central object of her aspirational life,” and from then she wants him to notice her. An invitation to a sleepover results in Ivy’s outraged parents uprooting their daughter to New Jersey but not before she manages to sleep with Roux, a Romanian immigrant, considered “poor trash” by Ivy’s family. Roux seems to be the only person on the planet who ‘gets’ the many facets to Ivy’s splintered personality, understanding that her docile, passive exterior hides some dark, transgressive behaviour.

The novel then picks up Ivy’s life when she’s in her late twenties and working as a teacher. She wasn’t an easy child to like but now, even though she’s deeply insecure, she’s gilded with certain exterior markers that make her seem like a whole person. Ivy isn’t happy. There’s a vast emptiness inside Ivy where values and identity should be. She’s unmarried and the object of her parents’ clumsy matchmaking attempts. Then, one day, Gideon steps back into her life, and Ivy, an adept shapeshifter thanks to her scrambled identity, will do whatever it takes to hang onto him. …

Soon Ivy is in the middle of Gideon’s family, seemingly accepted, even embraced, and yet his sister Sylvia and Gideon’s best friend Tom maintain a sharp disdain for Ivy. Ivy, willing to shape herself into whatever persona is necessary to be accepted, suffers insults and bad behaviour as she subsumes herself into the role of Gideon’s girlfriend. Then Sylvia’s boyfriend, Roux, now extremely successful, walks back into Ivy’s life.

White Ivy makes my Best-of Year list in its exploration of one young woman’s splintered identity and her self-destructive, twisted pursuit of the shallow, deceptive markers of success. The tale is unpredictable, tragic, and a mirror to the emptiness of Ivy’s interpretation of the American Dream. Ivy with her splintered, corrupted identity fails to see the value (or valueless) of her pursuit. Gideon’s family is considered ‘old money,’ and yet just what the family coffers hold is up for debate. Only old money can get away with a certain shabbiness, and some of the book’s intriguing scenes involve Ivy’s family (now affluent) who show up in brand new designer clothes to meet Gideon’s parents: Ted and Poppy.

Nan’s sharp eyes took in every detail–the two modest but tasteful bedrooms. the corner library, the solemn parlour with russet curtains-and made humming sounds of approval in her throat, but Meifeng would point to a table or lamp and ask abstract, one-worded adjectives, like “Old?” or “Real?” Poppy would rush to answer with a detailed explanation about the origins of each piece and Ivy or Shen would translate. “Everything is falling apart,” Meifeng said to Ivy in Chinese. “Their wealth is made of dung. Not useful even when spread.” She flicked a knob of plaster off the wall, then sniffed it.

Susie Yang’s characters form a rich tableaux of various aspects of American culture: Old money, new money (Roux) and immigrants who achieve the American Dream only to find it’s not what they expected. There’s a Chinese American human rights lawyer, Liana who holds sway over her social circle with her wobbly claim to Chinese authenticity, and Austin, Ivy’s brother who is almost completely non-functional. Overseeing the Lin family is tough old Meifeng’s pragmatic values. And then there’s Ivy–a woman so desperate to belong that she really has no idea who she is.

Ivy’s story tackles that old question of who we think we want to be vs. who we really are. Many immigrant novels deal with the subject of assimilation and while that’s true here, Ivy’s assimilation is self-destructive, transgressive and fraught with pathology. She’s willing to subsume herself into some sort of shallow, hollow role in order to be accepted, and she’s subservient to the inauthentic people in Gideon’s circle, people she doesn’t even like, in order to be accepted. As her quest darkens and narrows, it’s clear that Ivy will do whatever it takes to succeed, and the book’s stunning ending is terrifying in its implications.

Makes my Best-of-Year list

Review copy


Filed under Fiction, Yang Susie