Lean on Pete is written from the first person perspective of Charley Thompson, a young 15 year old American boy who loves football. He has been dragged from place to place by his well intentioned but neglectful father and largely left to fend for himself throughout his childhood. The book begins just after the two of them have moved to Portland, Oregon for his father to work in a factory there. Charley misses his previous school, where "at least he had friends". His father leaves him to care for himself, and in order to feed himself he takes a job at a local racetrack with a local named Del Montgomery who runs horses into the ground. Sadly, disaster strikes for Charley and he eventually finds himself traversing America with a horse, Lean on Pete, searching for the only person he has left in the world, his Aunt.
The best part of this book was the character of Charley. Charley is a such a wonderful young man, you can't help but want to hug him. He is so strong and resilient in the face of everything that he has to deal with. Despite being neglected by the one person who should be caring for him, being mistreated and taken advantage of by his employer and then finding himself all alone with no where to go, Charley is able to face up to his challenges and meet them head on. The way in which he is able to do this, though, is to distance himself from his problems. When reading Lean on Pete, you get this real sense that the way in which Charley is able to handle such big challenges is by distancing himself from them. Charley focuses on what he ate for his last meal, what he watched on television, what movie he saw. We hear how people let him stay with them and give him ice cream and arrange meals for him. Very rarely does he ever really give in to the despair that he should legitimately feel when her considers the bigger picture. It is a self protection technique that serves him well during his cross country journey.
The best things about Charley is that despite being so resilient, he was still so vulnerable. My heart bled for him at the end of the story in his final conversations (I won't say with who). It tore out my heart when he asks himself why it is that seeing something nice can make him so sad. I wanted to comfort him myself, just bundle him up into my arms and tell him that everything will be ok. I
The unique style and language Vlautin uses to tell this story really helped to create the feel of Charley and his journey. The language was very sparse. It is written in short sentences. It is very straightforward. Although I found this style rather irritating at first, I did get used to it, and in hindsight I think that it served it's purpose in really emphasising Charley's situation. When Charley is upset, he says "And then I cried." There is no mucking about. The sparse language lent the story and the character a really authentic feel.
The only problem I had with the language, after I got over the initial irritation with it, was that the whole time I was reading the book I was confused about the genre. It felt so young that I kept thinking I was reading young adult fiction. But there was nothing on the book to suggest that it was. I know that in theory it shouldn't matter what the genre is, only whether I enjoyed it or not. But it did matter, it actually bothered me the whole time I was reading it. I now know that it is adult fiction, not young adult. But I think that it would work better if approached as a young adult novel, and if I were to recommend this book to someone, that is what I would recommend it as.
Charley's father was also a complex character I found really interesting. He was very much guilty of neglecting his son, and exposing him to things that so child you be exposed to. And yet, I like to think that he loved his son and that he really thought that he was doing his best by him. He had good intentions, but couldn't put them into practice. He could have abandoned his son at any point, but instead he chose to raise him and to support him as best he could. More than anything, I think this is a comment on the situation in many communities, where lack of education, employment and support networks really effects people's lives.
The whole story was an interesting exploration of the reality of the daily lives of people from low socio-economic backgrounds. The little portraits that Vlautin draws of the various characters that Charley meets along the way are (I believe) so accurate that it really makes you stop and think. You see the alcohol, the drugs, the sex, the unemployment, the lack of education. It is a really bleak picture, but Vlautin doesn't dwell upon the bleakness because the story is told through the young, hopeful and vulnerable eyes of Charley.
The plot itself was a little far fetched. You really have to suspend reality to picture Charley trekking across America with a horse in tow and jumping hurdle after hurdle in the way that he does. Fortunately, it was my belief in Charley that allowed me to suspend by belief in what he was actually doing and I really enjoyed the book.
After re-reading this review I have a post script: despite what seems to be a glowing review, I didn't love this book. It was good. The things that irritated me (the language and the unclear genre being the main two), outweighed the good things. So I can't say I loved it. Can't say I hated it. It was was just ok.
What kind of read is this?
It is an easy read with very simple language, and can be quite heart breaking. It's almost a young adult version of The Road by Cormac McArthy (with a person apocalypse rather than a world wide one).
Do I recommend this book?
Yes, especially if you like young adult fiction but want some more serious content.
Do I recommend that you buy this book?
No. Borrowing it would suit.