For Horace Hopper, the half-breed protagonist of Willy Vlautin’s bleak new novel, essential truths come slowly, and usually too late to do him any good. Abandoned by his Native American mother and Irish American father, he has exiled himself from the only people who love him, an elderly couple on a sheep ranch in deepest Nevada. His one idea for becoming ‘somebody’ is to transform himself into a world-champion lightweight boxer with a wholly fabricated Mexican identity. ‘Mexican boxers are the toughest… true warriors who never quit,’ he believes. Only well into the novel does it dawn on him that his self-inflicted loneliness is ‘a sort of disease’, not a manly test of character that will redeem his young life.
Horace’s surrogate father, Eldon Reese, is an atypical westerner, a liberal who knows better than to buy into Horace’s ‘winners’ version of the American dream. Despite his efforts to keep his ward on the ranch, he can’t make up for Horace’s low self-esteem. When Horace is exploited by greedy trainer-promoters happy to bleed their new fighter both physically and financially, the truth once again catches up with him, in a Tucson emergency room after a particularly brutal match. ‘I’m a liar,’ he confesses to a nurse. ‘I’m not Hector Hidalgo. I’m not Mexican. My real name is Horace Hopper.’
Vlautin is on to something about what’s wrong with America, and with many Americans, especially in the age of Trump. According to the publishers, the author is exploring the ‘fringes’ of US society, but this is a misleading cliché. While in no way privileged, Horace is more rooted than many young men from a similar background. Above and beyond his sense of aloneness, there is something self-defeating in Horace’s personality that exemplifies an unfortunate tendency among certain Americans, corporate managers and factory workers alike: even though they boast about rugged independence, they’re all too willing to take abuse. Horace ‘wasn’t bothered by getting hit… It wasn’t that he liked it, exactly; he just didn’t mind it.’ The problem, as one of his unscrupulous trainers remarks, about Horace’s vulnerability in the ring is that ‘already you seem to run into punches and it’ll get a lot worse when they [future opponents] know your style’.
Eldon Reese has a better idea:
You can take all the best things you are and be them. I don’t know how many times I’ve tried to tell you all the great things that come from being a Paiute and all the great things that come from being from a small town and all the great things that come from being part Irish and 100 per cent Nevadan.
The tension over whose sensibility will prevail makes this book worth reading — but it infuses it with a peculiarly American sort of pain.