The Horse by Willy Vlautin review – man and beast in harmony

<span>‘Little concern for reinvention’: Willy Vlautin.</span><span>Photograph: Graeme Robertson/The Guardian</span>
‘Little concern for reinvention’: Willy Vlautin.Photograph: Graeme Robertson/The Guardian

There is something quietly glorious about a novelist who identifies a furrow for their writing and then ploughs it diligently and skilfully from one novel to the next, with little concern for reinvention. For Willy Vlautin, that furrow is working-class life in the American west, burdened by debt, alcoholism and depression but enlivened, often, by music, friendship and connection to nature. Many of the elements that colour his earlier novels – motels, casinos, runaways and drifters – recur prominently in this latest, not least the horse of the title, which could be a relative of the long-suffering nag from 2010’s Lean on Pete.

First, though, we meet Al Ward, a 65-year-old musician, “bone-thin, with grey hair and blue eyes”, who is hiding out at a disused mine in the high desert of central Nevada with only his songs and memories for company. Ward is the future self that many young musicians dread becoming: booze-wracked and jaded but still plagued by the compulsion to turn everything into lyrics. (Vlautin, a songwriter himself with the bands Richmond Fontaine and the Delines, knows something of this compulsion.) Ward’s career has been spent penning folk songs with titles such as The Only Way I Know Is Down and The Girl With Drowning Eyes, and as he shuffles about his isolated shack we catch glimpses of the life that inspired such sorrowful compositions.

The dialogue is sturdy and the milieu in which Ward’s career unfolds is richly conjured

Then one morning a horse appears in the snow outside, battered and half-blind, and Ward is forced to reckon with something other than the broken dreams and dysfunctional relationships of his past. He does his limited best to help the creature, offering it spaghetti and driving off coyotes, all the while hoping that the unfortunate beast will depart of its own accord.

It’s easy to conclude that the horse is a mirror of sorts in which Ward can confront the ruins of his own life. Vlautin has his protagonist reach the same conclusion – that “he and the horse were the same… His mind had finally betrayed him by bringing him the saddest thing he could imagine… so Al would go mad and in that madness he’d be set free.”

Related: Willy Vlautin: ‘I had a picture of Steinbeck and a picture of the Jam’

It sounds bleak, and it is, but The Horse, weighing in at little more than 200 pages, is also lithe and, for all its jumping around in time, tremendously compelling. Vlautin’s characters are briskly sketched, with the risk that all the ex-bandmates and former lovers begin to blur together, but the dialogue is sturdy and the milieu in which Ward’s career unfolds – the truck-stop lounges, the seedy motels – is richly conjured. Few fans will resent Vlautin for picking over this terrain once more. The Horse is as succinct and wrenching as a well-honed folk song.

The Horse by Willy Vlautin is published by Faber (£18.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at Delivery charges may apply