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The Free: A Novel (P.S.)

The Free: A Novel (P.S.) - Willy Vlautin Although this appears to be a political and social commentary on the views of liberals vs. conservatives, left vs. right, no matter what your political predilection, your heart will be touched by the plight of society’s victims that are brought to life on these pages. They are lost souls who finally may find themselves after surviving the quicksand that is their daily life. Seeing them unfairly harassed by the world, the reader will wonder why they aren’t given second chances more readily, why they are condemned so quickly, why compassion is so rare, except among the victims themselves. Is this pure fantasy or a true picture of society, some time in the future, or even now? Or is it an exaggeration of the ills of society that we are often blind to and, therefore, do not see unless thrust into our consciousness. This is an allegory about the life of the downtrodden in a world that is largely stacked against them, against their efforts, against the possibility of them ever achieving success and getting out from under the burdens of their life. Each of the characters just seems to be trying to find some personal space, some peace and some happiness, trying to survive in a place that seems unable to welcome them into it without extreme prejudice. It is a world depicted as unfair, unjust, bigoted and discriminatory in all things that can affect these characters: the economy, housing, family life, health care, job opportunities, education and compensation.
The story centers on Leroy Kervin, an Iraq war veteran who sustained a traumatic brain injury during combat. He was in the National Guard. He joined for the security, not to fight in a foreign war. His injury keeps him in a muddled state of mind which he finds unbearable. When one night he wakes up clear-headed, he wants to preserve that magical moment, and so he chooses to commit suicide to prevent himself from falling back to sleep and reawakening into the same stupor he has been living through over the last several years. He wants to die with a lucid state of mind, however, he survives his poorly planned attempt. He is found, severely wounded, by Freddie, the night watchman, who visits him in the hospital as often as he can, keeping vigil by his bedside, bringing an occasional gift. Leroy’s hospital nurse, Pauline, although not perfect, could serve as a compassionate example for everyone. She cares little about herself, but rather more about her patients and her father, who is mentally ill, making personal sacrifices to help them.
The story revolves around these three, Leroy, Freddie and Pauline, as they live their lives in the days following Leroy’s attempt to end his life, as they are faced with one dilemma after another but, somehow, manage to muddle through, sometimes even coming out the other end in a better state than they were previously.
The political message is obvious; it is left of left. These characters are victims of society’s wrath. They find themselves in sorry circumstances through no fault of their own, and they are battered by those in society who recognize their weakness, take advantage of it and exploit them. They must come to terms with their shortcomings and reverse the negative effects on their existence. They are the working poor who never seem to get ahead, but they always seem to maintain an optimistic air of hope for survival and improved circumstances. Society and the rich are the evildoers in the book, taking advantage of the oppressed and the browbeaten, demoralizing them further as they exploit them in an effort to break them.
There are those vicims who feel forced to break the rules and wind up paying for their transgressions, which only pushes them further down into the heap of humanity they are trying to escape. The characters are all portrayed pretty much as victims of society’s mercilessness, only doing what they have to in order to get by with a decent living, rather than eke out a starvation existence. The reader will have to decide whether or not this book is based on reality in totality, or if it is just a slice of humanity and not a true example of what exists for the majority of people. Still, the suffering is tangible, clearly evident in their lives, no matter how they try to change their ways. They are often repentant but helpless to really reform.
Leroy’s dreams, or rather nightmares, as he lies in the hospital, are bleak. They depict a world in which the weak are pursued by “the free”, those that are stronger. The weak are supposed to be those that live off the system without putting anything into it, the takers, the lazy, and the cowards. The strong are the military, the bible thumpers, those who don’t practice what they preach, the financially successful and the independent, the very same groups that actually have been taking advantage of society’s weak, society’s victims marked for elimination. There is irony here. In Leroy’s dream, he and Jeanette are living from hand to mouth, on a broken down boat, and yet, she has a job working in a hotel where rich people stay, and he is working on a construction site where a rich person is essentially building a mansion. The imagery is fraught with pain and contrast.
If you believe the message in the book, it is life that makes these people weak, that creates these poor souls described as sponges, these leeches, these freeloaders, or “greenloaders” as they are called in the book. All citizens have been forced to take a “test” which will determine whether or not they are productive citizens or parasites. If they are non-productive they will develop a mark that spreads on the body until it is covered. When the mark is discovered, those with it are tracked and captured, sometimes brutally murdered or tortured. It is the epitome of brutality and injustice, but no one cares, they are afraid to intervene for they might become suspect and suffer the same dire fate.
The characters are behind the eight ball, life has cheated them even if and when their pain is self inflicted. They are still unfairly wounded; life for them is lopsided, not dependent on effort, but rather on circumstance. While they are depicted as lazy, these “tired, huddled, masses” are often working harder than those who employ them, yet the employer often reaps the rewards of the employee’s efforts, while they unfairly compensate them for their work. The “victims” make foolish choices, joining the military after listening to the officers who then help them enlist, the very same officers who often remain out of harm’s way. It is because of the efforts of the foot soldiers that the others who resent them and use them, have the freedoms they enjoy. These demoralized and oppressed victims are unable to advance because they are always in the maelstrom of their own failure.
The story is about the degradation of the weak by the strong and the almost superhuman effort needed to overcome all that is against them, and yet they have undying hope and optimism. All of the characters have euphoric moments contrasted by moments of despondency when they are overwhelmed by life, and all of their burdens and responsibilities. Even in their darkest moments, though, they retain their hopefulness and retain their humanity, often thinking of others even when it is at a disadvantage to themselves. In the end, each character attains a modicum of success in that their dreams are partially fulfilled, their prayers are somewhat answered. Is that really enough?
The book presents a very progressive view about war, poverty, health care, heterosexuality, education, the military, and every aspect of life that can be illustrated to show the left’s advantage, to show how those on the right are responsible for all evils that befall those that are exploited. Hard working people are sucked into the morass caused by those self-righteous people who want to root out the takers from society so they can better enjoy the life from which they shut out those that are considered less substantial. They prey upon those weaker, sending innocents to die, forcing them to compromise themselves to make ends meet. The theme is definitely one for bleeding hearts, but no matter who you are, you can’t help but be moved by the plight of these characters. Often through no fault of their own, they suffer simply because of the ordinary exigencies of life or because of a bad choice they cannot get out from under.
Jeanette was Leroy’s real-life girlfriend. In his dreams the soldiers are after them as are other vigilante groups, belonging to “The Free”. They try to escape to Canada (shades of Viet Nam protestors), but even there, they find no sanctuary, even there they are hunted and murdered, tortured and reviled, even their pets and children which is the epitome of malice and cruelty.
I was disappointed with the ending. I wasn’t sure what would happen to Freddie. Would he make it? Would he provide a decent home for his daughters who were being abandoned by their mother? Would Jeanette find another life? Would Pauline ever be able to commit to a happy relationship? Wouldl she be able to help her deadbeat dad? Perhaps all their dreams would be fulfilled once they were “free”. Maybe there is hope in the book because they all move on, and even as they remained the same, they let go of their pasts and their burdens, and they coped better with their lives. Were they then, truly “the free”?
The author was able to get into each character’s head, presenting them realistically, each with his/her own distinct personality. The suffering just kept suffering and yet they bore up and moved on, they keep on trying to succeed, even though they seemed to be running in place.
For me, it wasn’t a hopeful statement on life. Yet, these characters were so appreciative of small gains that they ended up happier and more content than when they started out. I suppose that is where the message grows positive, rather than negative. Even though the book presents characters in a pitiful state of affairs, dealing with tragedy and stress, they end up smiling and, perhaps, you the reader will also end up smiling, with your own sadness lifted.