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.
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