Lean on Pete by Willy Vlautin—a review

“Why do you stay here? He seems really mean.”

“I don’t know where else to go . . .”

In the America of Lean on Pete, you’re either rooted or rootless, bound or footloose, but hounded always by the past. You live in the shadows, even when you live in the exposed skeleton of the desert. Hidden from view—children invisible to their parents, women invisible to the men who use them, drunk and disappointed dreamers invisible to the wider world. Or worse: those no longer dreaming, just damned.

This is the world of Charley Thompson, fifteen years old and living in a Portland shack with a sometimes father and a constant hunger. Running the streets (literally) to pursue his dream of playing football for his new high school when the school year starts, Charley is driven into the sadness of Del Montgomery, a hobbled horse trainer and trader. Working for Del provides Charley with some money, a further education into the corrupt soul of the American Dream, and a quiet friendship with a horse named Lean on Pete.

Circumstances drive Charley deeper into Del’s world, until Pete is too worn down for Del to lean on any longer. Choosing rootless over rooted in cruelty, Lean on Pete becomes travels with Charley (and Pete), a great escape across the northern passage of the American West. Though he feels damned at times, Charley still dreams, dreams of reuniting in Wyoming with the only family member he knows, his aunt.

With a parsimony befitting both the physical and emotional geography, Vlautin gives us a coming of age survival story in an America many of us willingly shutter, a novel illuminating the harrowing strain involved in chipping away at American rust.

I admit it took the positive buzz around the film version to bring this quietly devastating novel to the top of my to-be-read pile, but the subtle redemption of Lean on Pete should be read immediately.

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