Fifteen-year-old Charlie Thompson is always hungry. Luckily, he is blessed with a high metabolism rate, so the excessive amounts of junk food and Spagetti-Os that he consumes does not alter his weight. Charlie rationalizes that he wants to gain weight anyway, so he can play football, but there is considerable evidence that his hunger is caused by deeper needs: the need to be loved, valued, respected ... perhaps even given a safe home, companionship and a sense of security.
Essentially, Charlie is an abandoned child. After his mother left and never returned, Charlie’s life became increasingly unstable. His father, an irresponsible provider and womanizer, often left his son alone for long periods with a few dollars and no groceries. Despite his growing anxiety about his father long absences, Charlie treasures the few good memories of fishing trips and camping.
However, motivated by hunger and boredom, the boy finally finds his way to a dilapidated racetrack where he manages to find work cleaning stalls and grooming the horses. His employer is a repugnant man named Del Montgomery, and although he occasionally gives Charlie money, the amount is scant and unpredictable. Drunken, irritable and given to obscene diatribes against everything from women, horses and debtors, Del frequently abuses and demeans the boy.
When Charlie’s father is murdered by an irate husband (a huge Samoan), the frightened boy quickly becomes both desperate and paranoid. Without a home, he tries to live at the racetrack, hiding his meager belongings in the tack-room. He begins to steal groceries (mostly canned soup and bread) and develops a talent for stealing uneaten food left by customers in fast-food establishments. Although he is often caught, he manages to evade social workers. After Del discovers that he is living at the racetrack, he refuses to pay the boy. Becoming increasingly desperate, Charlie begins to break into local homes when the residents are at work. He takes food from the refrigerators, takes a shower, and after washing his clothes, he cleans the house and sneaks away.
In those brief moments when Charlie is warm and well fed, he often dreams about an aunt ... Margy Thompson, his father’s sister. In her visits to the home, she had taken a interest in Charlie, taking him to movies and buying him clothes. After a bitter argument with his father, she had never returned, but Charlie fantasized about her, dreaming that she lived alone somewhere in Wyoming and she would take him in and perhaps he would enroll in the local high school and play football. However, Charlie’s dreams are also haunted by nightmares of the huge Samoan who killed his father.
The heart of this marvelous novel concerns the relationship between Charlie and a quarter-horse named Lean on Pete. Although tending to dozens of horses, Charlie is drawn to the horse because he identifies with it.
Charlie quickly learns that race horses are only well-treated when they are winners. Lean on Me is a winner, but like Charlie, he is nervous and “easily spooked.” When Lean on Pete develops a nervous condition that could easily lead to his being killed ... like other unproductive horses that are not “earning their keep,” Charlie becomes obsessed with a plan for saving the horse. When Del orders the boy to load Lean on Me for a trip to track for another buyer,” Charlie does the only thing he can. He steals Lean on Me.
At this point, Lean on Pete becomes a “journey novel.” Charlie and his horse begin a trek from Portland to Rock Springs, Wyoming. It is a daunting trip, fraught with peril, and Charlie seems destined to encounter every cruel and unsavory aspect of being homeless. Predators abound, and long after this hapless horse has ceased to be Charlie’s responsibility, Charlie travels through deserts, slums, youth centers and the dark streets where he is often beaten, frequently frightened and always hungry.
Despite the fact that this gentle boy rarely encounters kindness and sympathy, it does happen. Strangers feed him, give him a place to sleep, and give him money. What is most significant about these “random acts of kindness,” is the fact that they exist at all. Charlie Thompson’s grim journey seems to be designed to make him a hardened criminal, for along the way, survival requires that he learn to lie, cheat and even bludgeon a psychotic attacker with a car jack. Time and time again, he encounters callous indifference and cruelty; yet when kindness is offered, he invariably accepts it with gratitude.
The author, Willy Vlautin, is being hailed as a new Steinbeck and/or a disciple of Ramond Carver. These comparisons are valid since Vlautin’s writing reflects the same compassion for the powerless — the people in American society who are defenseless. Vlautin is mindful of the tragic plight of the homeless, of abandoned children and abused women. There is some talk of making Lean on Pete required reading in those levels of society where Charlie Thompson’s brothers and sisters live. There are countless thousands who, unlike Charlie, do not have an Aunt Margy who will rescue them from those dark streets.
In conclusion, is should be noted that Lean on Pete contains a graphic description of Portland Meadows, a dilapidated racetrack in Oregon that refuses to close. Over the years, it has become a gathering place for the rejects of the racing world. Designed for 10,000 people, this track continues to operate with a regular audience of less than one thousand. There are over 1,000 horses at Portland Meadows, but they are not the pampered winners at other tracks.
Vlautin’s description of this anachronism is painfully accurate for the Meadows embodies a generous number of denizens like Del Montgomery who treat their horses and employees with abuse and cruelty. Doubtless, there are jockeys and groomers as benighted as those in Lean on Pete. However, as the Steinbeck quote accompanying this review, that is not the total picture. Sometimes, beneath the rusty exterior, Charlie has brief encounters with human compassion.
Lean on Pete by Willy Vlautin. Harper, 2010. 277 pages