Lean On Pete

Willy Vlautin
Faber and Faber; €15

LEAN ON PETE might be the story of one boy and his horse, but it is never heart-warming. This is a novel which ranges in tone from the utterly desperate to the merely painful. Gripping in its bleak and unadorned portrayal of 21st century American life, it’s a tale which is nihilistic, never redemptive.

Charley, the narrator and protagonist, is a 15-year-old boy with a fairly simple dream: he’d like a home with some hot food on the table, a high school he can attend for more than part of a year, and some structure to his life.

But as the son of an affectionate but negligent single father, a rolling stone who works his way through warehouses across the Pacific Northwest and entertains a series of temporary girlfriends as he goes, this isn’t an option. Charley finds he’s on his own for much of the time — and often without enough to eat.

The novel opens as Charley and his Dad arrive in Portland, Oregon, where Charley takes a job at the local race track.

Once part of a vibrant racing network, Portland Meadows is now washed out; seemingly the last haven for has-been jockeys and worn-down horses.

This racetrack is at the scrub end of American horse racing; the animals are quarter horses, not thoroughbreds, and the trainer engages in cruel, illegal and barely profitable practices.

But it is here that Charley, a decent enough kid, meets Pete, an old race-horse who becomes his companion as, following a set of tragic circumstances, the youngster is forced to make his own way in the world. When Pete’s feet go bad and Del decides to sell him to a Mexican slaughterhouse, Charley decides to save the horse and the novel reveals itself as a modern retelling of Huckleberry Finn.

Gripping and absorbing as it is, this novel does not provide a comfortable picture of modern America, so, if you have kids, file it on the top shelf of the bookcase.


Wesley O’ Regan is the General Manager of Popscene in Voodoo Rooms, Cork city. Popscene opened last November and is Cork’s only themed bar that is dedicated to celebrating the best of the 80s and 90s. https://www.facebook.com/PopsceneCork/You've Been Served: Wesley O'Regan, Popscene

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