No 551 Northline by Willy Vlautin

Anyone following me on social media over the summer may have been aware that I read Don’t Skip Out on Me by Willy Vlautin and loved it.

Actually, loved it is too tame a phrase. That book ripped my heart out, stamped all over it and still asked me to love it. Which I did. I’ve been recommending it to everyone. I’m becoming a bit of a bore.

So, I decided to check out Vlautin’s back catalogue and discovered that I had Northline in my 746.


Northline, is Vlautin’s second novel and once again depicts ordinary, working class people trying to make their way in a world that isn’t about to do them any favours.

Set in Las Vegas and Reno, Northline focuses on Allison Johnson, a young, easily led woman who can’t handle her drink, but drinks nonetheless. Allison lives with her mother and her younger sister Evelyn and has a boyfriend Jimmy. Jimmy professes to love Allison, but he is a violent racist and speed addict whose best friends are all skinheads.

Allison puts up with a lot from Jimmy, but following a particularly violent incident, she finally decides to leave him, move to Reno and try to make a new life for herself.

So far, so country song, but Northline oozes with compassion for its characters. Allison suffers from panic attacks and to settle herself, she enters into a fantasy world where her favourite actor, Paul Newmann chats to her and gives her advice.

‘You’re the only one I like.’

‘I know kid. You’re a real gem that way. Now get out of the tub, it’s time to give it another try.’

‘All right,’ she said.

‘And kid – ‘


‘Buy a TV, you think too much.’

This could have been a cloying device, but Vlautin uses it sparingly and well – showing that, deep down, Allison knows what she has to do, but needs the spirit of Newmann to give her strength.


Vlautin’s style is spare – there isn’t a word out of place or over used, the limited diction echoing these limited lives. However it is his sympathy for his characters that gives his writing such depth and emotion. Like Kent Haruf, he is particularly attuned to those quiet moments of kindness that can have a profound effect on the recipient.

When Allison is hitching a lift to get away from Jimmy, she is picked up by a thoughtful elderly man TJ Watson and their tender meeting has a lasting impact on the girl and on the reader. A bartender and his wife look after Allison when she passes out in the local laundromat and it is when Allison starts to pass these small kindnesses on to someone else, that she then begins to heal herself.

Vlautin writes with a quiet surety on issues like loneliness and post-traumatic stress without losing the subtle rhythm of his work, or letting those issues take centre stage. This is a quiet novel about very ordinary people, living mundane lives – all damaged in some way and all just trying to get by. Their dreams are simple and uncomplicated, centred upon companionship and safety. In a telling description of her favourite Paul Newmann scene, Allison tries to explain to her friend the comfort that these daydreams give her.

‘Anyway, there’s this scene where the nurse and him are together and she’s really exhausted so he makes her a bath. He puts bubbles in it and shakes the water so the bubbles get extra bubbly and he sits with her while she lays in the water. It’s hard to explain, but it just kills me. As sad as it is to admit, he’s probably the greatest thing that ever happened to me.’

Vlautin has an ability to capture a very specific time and place and his work evokes that romaticised vision of a lost America, while looking clear-eyed at the reality of feeling dispossessed in America today. His characters dream of moving, going to a different State, the northline of the title, where a new start will bring them a new life. But they know that’s not likely. As Paul Newmann says to Allison,

Remember, kid, there ain’t no place where you can escape to. There’s no place where there ain’t weirdos and death and violence and change and new people. You head up to Wyoming or Montana and you’ll run into the same things as you do in Vegas or New Orleans. You’ll run into yourself.

It’s a simple message, told with warmth, compassion and clarity and the subtle ending is suggestive of hope and new beginnings.

Read on: Book

Number Read: 196

Number Remaining: 550


The 746

Cathy746books View All →

I am a 40 something book buying addict trying to reduce the backlog one book at a time!

11 Comments Leave a comment

  1. Yes, Kent Haruf is the author that always comes to mind when I read about Vlautin’s work. It’s rare to see a writer focusing on ordinary blue-collar people trying to cope with the everyday challenges of life and executing it with such compassion and sympathy. Great review as ever, Cathy – you’ve done this author proud.


  2. I’m curious, how did it happen that you ended up having one of his earlier books, after having been surprised to have enjoyed the first one so much: did you read something about him that got you collecting him even before you’d read him? That happens to me sometimes, and I used to have a much larger collection and storage space so I would simply lose track of what I had on my shelves.


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