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Love Letter To A Vanishing City: Willy Vlautin On The Night Always Comes
Adam Zamecnik , July 10th, 2021 08:09

Set in a changing Portland, Willy Vlautin’s new novel tells the story of its desperate residents chasing after normalcy. The author of Lean On Pete and singer of Richmond Fontaine and The Delines talks to Adam Zamecnik about gentrification, trauma, and Portland, Oregon

Photo by Dan Eccles

Despite calling from his house in Oregon’s countryside, which he compares to a location from Twin Peaks, Willy Vlautin’s new novel The Night Always Comes is firmly set in a changing Portland. Taking place over two days and two nights, Vlautin’s sixth book is as much a story about its protagonist Lynette, a thirty-something working-class woman, as it is a rapidly gentrifying Portland.

Forced to desperate measures, Lynette pushes against the socio-economic odds of the changing city in search of enough money to pay for the deposit of her childhood home in one of Portland’s remaining working-class neighbourhoods. Seeing how her neighbourhood is quickly being encroached by expensive concrete and steel flats, Lynette hopes that owning her home would help her turn the tide of precarity.

Moving to Portland in the 1990s, Vlautin was able to put down roots in what soon became a booming city. While he himself was able to buy his own house, which he describes as having a “transformative impact” on his life, he saw the city quickly change into someplace different. And while he still loves his city, he says that this transformation started a certain “panic” in him, which later grew into the book, as well as an album by his band The Delines.

How have you come up with the idea for the book, for the story?

For thirteen years, I’ve rented an office in this northern part of Portland called St. John’s. It is a working-class neighbourhood. And one of the last old parts of Portland that was like a real working-class part of town. But in the last ten years or less, just looking out my window, I’ve watched the whole city change. There are five new apartment buildings that have gone up that I can see from my window. If you drive to downtown Portland, you can see anywhere from ten to fifteen cranes, each crane meaning a new building. So, it’s just this massive growth. You start seeing these old beat-up houses that a guy like me could afford ten, fifteen, twenty years ago now quadrupling in price in the last twenty years. It just makes you worried the whole city is changing. So, I think it started just as a kind of a panic. You start seeing this place you have lived in and loved rapidly changing.

You previously mentioned that you wanted to explore the American dream of home ownership in this book. Would you say it has become a dream in cities such as Portland for the average American?

It is a weird shift in that dream. I think I am one of the last generations that was raised to believe that it was possible. Like my mum – if a guy had a house, she liked him better than if he didn’t. You got to own a house, because it gives you freedom and power, it gives you a little autonomy. I see why the American dream of home ownership is so romantic. But when you look at a place like Portland, where the minimum wage has gone up twice and housing prices have quadrupled, it is out of control. And it’s gonna leave a lot of people left behind.

Home ownership is undeniably one of the main goals for many people in their life. Yet Lynette’s story suggests that this may not be the case completely. What do you think that says about the American dream of home ownership, especially in the face of rising prices throughout most of America?

In cities like Portland, San Francisco, Los Angeles, even my hometown of Reno, I think you just get to the point where it’s just unattainable for a working-class family. Those old school jobs that have good benefits and forty-hour work weeks, are hard to get. And the haves and the have-nots are getting further apart. So, I think that idea is slipping away, at least in the big cities. It is a really interesting time – and heartbreaking. There are a lot of different levels to the book, but one of them is it being a love letter to Portland. It is a great city, and no city can handle the rapid growth that Portland is undergoing.

One of the first pages of your book features a quote from Donald Trump. Why is that?

I think that’s the brain work of so many CEOs and civic leaders: capitalism at all costs. And I just started seeing the way Portland’s grown in the way where working-class people are pushed out. And I said – okay, if that’s seen as good, and if greed is seen as good, then how does greed look at the bottom level? And here’s Lynette, who still believes in trying to save her family, she believes in home ownership, the American dream. Now granted, she has a lot of dents to her and she's beat up, but who isn’t? Especially from her socio-economic position, she’s got some baggage she’s carrying, both personally and workwise. And so, I was saying – okay, if greed is good, this is how it looks at the bottom. And she goes out into the night in a kind of a desperate, ill-advised mission, and she comes across just varying degrees of greed on a lower working-class level.

In one part, Lynette’s mother says that she has decided to cheat the system using her son to get back at those in power. What does this say about the state of American society?

Well, you have Lynette who hasn’t been broken yet. And when you meet the mum, the mum is not a bad person. She’s just given up, she’s tired. She hasn’t had a lot of luck in her life. And I think a person can only withstand so much failure and little defeats. By the end, she is just cynical, which I think a lot of people get. I think that’s how Trump got into power, sadly. As people are really cynical and tired and are saying things like: what about me?

What pushes Lynette into such a desperate position?

It is just a breakdown of a family. So often, at least in my experience, a single mum is trying to get by, but if she has a boyfriend that buys groceries or fixes her car or the washing machine, those are huge things. It just takes a little bit of the edge off the fear of everything falling apart. I never described it in that book, but the mum is good, she is a beautiful woman. When Lynette is around fifteen or sixteen, the mum’s boyfriend starts hitting on her. And I think they’re not equipped to deal with it. They’re too tired. The mum doesn’t really know what’s going on.

I think this is that kind of vulnerability of being tired. Because the family has a guy that is living with them and helping them, he fixes her car and buys groceries and pays the bills. The mum is thankful for that, only to find that the guy is hitting on her daughter. That sends Lynette out into the wild. She’s not equipped for it, she gets sucked in by a guy that takes advantage of her.

So many people that have so many kids and so many people that are vulnerable, get preyed upon. It doesn’t have to be just kids. If you’re in a weak situation, and you’re beat up, tired, and scared, you can get taken advantage of. That happens to Lynette. You see her later on in the prices that she’s had to pay for. Or for that kind of breakdown to the family and for her being pushed out. It ruins her chance of normalcy.

Have you considered exploring the American dream elsewhere?

It’s tough. America is such a big place. It would be tough to set a novel in Detroit without living there for a long time, or the Midwest. Those old cities that have had their heyday are going to be a place where a lot of young people move to because there are houses that they could afford, there are avenues for them.

When I moved to Portland, it was because it was really cheap, and other musicians from all over the West, and sometimes all over the country, were moving to Portland, because they knew that people went out to see music in Portland.

Sometimes the city just passes you by and you have to just accept it. Sometimes gentrification just pushes you out. And you either move to the suburbs, or you move to a worse part of town, or you leave the city. But I’m just one guy. I can only tell one story. And I don’t even talk about the race issue in Portland. So many African-Americans have been pushed out of these neighbourhoods, like the neighbourhood that Lynette lives in, due to gentrification.

The book ends on an arguably more positive note than some of your other work, closing with what is quite an Americana image of Lynette driving eastwards, do you think she has found a better life?

I think she has. So, the American idea was to move west. And I think that’s changed. Now you just have to find a pocket that you can afford to live in. So it’s that idea of America – that the grass is always greener in a different city.

I think one of the things that's interesting and heartbreaking about the United States is that so many people and families get splintered. And there are so many people who live in a different city than their parents. So it can be really isolating and lonely. And I think the scary thing for Lynette is that she’s never lived by herself. So, it’s tough. I mean, she’s definitely got some scars to her, but I think she’ll be all right.

The Night Always Comes by Willy Vlautin is published by Faber