The snort of sprightly horses, the yelp of endearing dogs, the rearing of sheep and the tranquil silence of an idyllic, ‘earthy’ setting contrasts with the hustle and bustle of throbbing casinos, confined and cramped motels, stuffy, sweaty boxing rings and the deafening decibels of excited humans, in Willy Vlautin’ s magisterial, gut wrenching, where Steinbeck-meets-Thomas Hardy epic “Don’t Skip Out On Me”. Unsettling, Unvarnished and Unforgettable, this book jolts the reader of every reverie and leaves her gobsmacked at the end with a finish that inverts the arc of moral calculus.
Horace Hopper is an indefatigable 21-year-old ranch hand born to a Native American father and an Irish mother. Horace lives and works in Nevada on a ranch owned by Mr & Mrs. Reese. The elderly Reese couple, now in their 70s, took in Horace as a teenager and harbour hopes of Horace taking over the complete affairs of the ranch one day. Horace, however, suffers from a serrating pain within triggered by his mother’s untimely abandonment of her son, and is itching to carve out his own niche in the world. Before he was taken in by the Reese couple, Horace was left to his fate in the house of his Irish grandmother, who “drank Coors light on ice from 11am until she fell asleep on the couch at nine, who chain-smoked cigarettes, who ate only frozen dinners, and who was scared of Indians, blacks and Mexicans”.
Horace, tormented by a deep and gnawing sense of inadequacy, rejects the impassioned plea of the Reese couple to take over the ranch and makes his way to Tucson, Arizona. The only way he can regain his identity is by fueling a latent and simmering ambition – to become a professional boxer of repute. Calling himself Hector Hidalgo in an attempt to eviscerate all traces of Horace Hopper, the twenty one year old finds a disgruntled trainer and begins an arduous journey that would either take him to his chosen destination or make him realise the utter futility of his endeavours.
Obsessed with a self-help book, that charts out the map for becoming a champion, Horace exhorts himself never to give up. But no self help book can prepare a young, aspiring and raw twenty one year old in facing the harsh reality that anyone looking to reinvent themselves must also be willing to reimagine the very culture that spawns such reinvention. A culture that blares chaos, confusion and connivance. As the bowels of the city such Horace in deeper and deeper, he finds himself in danger of not just losing way but being divested of his very persona.
Willy Vlautin pulls back no punches in his reconstruction of Horace. Even surface details are laid out in rich contrast. Horace, while working in a tire shop is served lunch which consists of a plate plates “heaped with shrimp, cilantro, cucumber, peppers, tomatoes, onion, avocado and hot sauce”. A fare which he consumes with great distress since it marks a paradigm departure from his preferred choice of “spaghetti, lasagne, pizza and ravioli.”
Vlautin also describes the boxing bouts of Horace in immaculate detail. The reader can visualize every strategic jab, flinch at the power of an upper cut (Horace hits like concrete) and wince at every cut to the eye, crack of cartilage and breakage of ribs (Horace takes immense punishment as well). But the closer Horace gets to fulfilling his one goal, the farther he seems to drift as he is enveloped by an insidious cloud of doubt and an inchoate sense of fallibility. “It seemed the closer he was to what he wanted, the more lost he became. The sinking feeling that had plagued him his entire life wasn’t going away.”
However the standout element of the book is the concern of the Reese couple for Horace, whom they dote upon as their own son. As a disenchanted Horace stops taking Mr. Reese’s phone calls thereby causing immense anxiety to the couple, Mr. Reese decides to take matters into his own hands. He devices a scheme to bring Horace back to the ranch, a place where he rightfully and contentedly belongs. Braving horrible back spasms, Mr. Reese drives to Tucson with one avowed mission – to bring Horace back. This sets the scene for a thunderbolt of a climax which shakes the reader to her very bones!
“Don’t Skip Out On Me” – a one sitting read and a lifetime of contemplation.