Willy Vlautin: A Jockey’s Christmas

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By: Dennis Cook

Some artists have an unerring knack for etching the clear, rough lines of hard knock reality. Richmond Fontaine‘s Willy Vlautin has long been one of these warts & all truth-tellers but in the past few years he’s come into his own as a rich, poignant storyteller outside the concise bounds of a song. After delivering one of the fiercest emotional rides of 2008 with his sophomore novel, Northline, Vlautin has made a fantastic, amazingly unsentimental addition to the holiday canon with A Jockey’s Christmas (El Cortez/Décor), which begins:

“I went to the airport to catch the flight to see my family for Christmas. I was drunk, and I had been drunk for a couple days and I forgot my bag of clothes in the backseat of my friend’s car,” quickly followed by, “The only things I had with me were a Zane Grey novel and $600 to buy presents with.” Two hours after landing in Reno our narrator has lost all but $50 bucks in a casino, and the fuck-up consequences and spiritual body blows keep on comin’ as the family gathers around carrots & potatoes, TV idles and cans of beer. The chapter titles say so much in just a few words – a hallmark of Vlautin’s work – running through “The Drunk Uncle,” “The Crying Sisters” and culminating in “Christmas Dinner With a Broken Nose.”

Set to a shimmering, emotion tugging score delivered by Vlautin (acoustic guitar), Paul Brainard (pedal steel), Ralph Huntley (keys, accordion) and Farnell Newton (trumpet), Willy’s voice drifts like a weary Holy Spirit, tattered from years of mistakes and misdeeds, a hole-y thing saturated with disappointment but holding onto a mustard seed of hope tied to a long shot. Telling you what happens would steal your pleasure in discovering this new Christmas gem. What I will say is nothing goes the way of most holiday outings, and we’re all the better for it. For all its vaunted warmth & cheer, Christmas is frequently a bit of a hardship for many of us – a glittery reminder of what we lack and can’t offer others, a forced face-to-face with relatives we skirt most of the year, a series of gift wrapped disappointments. Enforced joy is rarely joyful and A Jockey’s Christmas achieves the rare balance of emotional empathy and unvarnished reality, understanding all the dark aspects of the season but also capturing the rare slivers of peace and kindness that prick us even in the depths of our malaise.

Captured with the verve of a great radio show, this is the boffo Christmas tale Buckowski never got around to penning, the story Bill Hicks would have curled up next to the fire with, bottle of scotch close at hand, each December if he were still here. At the risk of giving him a swelled head, I’ll just say it: Willy Vlautin is an American treasure. No bullshit. His tales directly engage reality in a way most writers are too stupid or timid to dare. This audio novella is far more valuable than the usual Christmas platitudes, a tenderizing reminder that there “ain’t much luck out there” and how we make a lot of our bad fortune for ourselves. It’s not chipper but it is real, and that’s a true gift and welcome new tradition to slip on the stereo during this time of greeting card clichés and forced frivolity. Oh, things turn out better than you might think for our anti-hero, but it wouldn’t be Christmas if they didn’t, right?

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