"Fleeing Las Vegas and her abusive boyfriend, Allison Johnson moves to Reno, intent on making a new life for herself. Haunted by the mistakes of her past, and lacking any self-belief, her only comfort seems to come from the imaginary conversations she has with Paul Newman, and the characters he played. But as life crawls on and she finds work, small acts of kindness start to reveal themselves to her, and slowly the chance of a new life begins to emerge."
Reading Northline is like reading a movie. The book is cinematic, not a Ben hur-a-like epic, but a slow burning, quiet film with long, drawn out shots of half empty truck stop diners at four in the morning.
This is not an insult, Vlautin has clearly drawn inspiration from this great Americana tradition and each passage appears in your mind, pre-formed almost as if accompanied by camera directions.
It tells the story of Alison, an Alcoholic waitress who flees her home in Las Vegas to start a new life in Reno away from her violent ex-boyfriend.
Heard it a million times? Yes you have, yet Northline manages to deliver its clichés in a way that feels oddly engaging rather than annoying, managing to mix them up just enough to make them all seem totally new.
Alison is a character in constant search of redemption, we are gradually fed information showing why she has the problems she has and her backstory is horrifying, I found myself caring deeply for her, a poor lost soul struggling to find happiness and constantly hitting wall after wall. She’s a tragic character and you find yourself hoping deeply that there is a happy ending to her tale.
Throughout the novel Alison reverts to a fantasy world where she has imaginary conversations with Paul Newman, an actor clearly a large influence on Vlautin himself. Newman gives Alsion advice and cites examples of his characters in his films as a way to help her with her problems.
These scenes are a delight to read, they feel as if they’re the only points where Alsion is happy.
A brief aside to talk about the CD, Northline is one of those rarest of beasts, a novel with a soundtrack. Certain editions of the book come with a short instrumental album intended to score key scenes in the novel. Vlautin found himself writing the songs in his spare time between writing sessions before coming to the realisation that they could be made into an actual release.
Vlautin plays on the album as well as fellow Richmond Fontaine band member Paul Brainard.
The music is beautiful, slow melancholic country that scores the events of the novel perfectly. Sitting with the novel, the soundtrack playing low in the background is a delightful unique experience that serves to further the cinematic feel of the book. It lends scenes a certain poignancy and is an experience well worth seeking out.
While finishing the novel I made special effort to go through the last thirty pages or so with the soundtrack and it was magical, the final chapters syncing with the music to give the book a climactic feel totally unlike the experience of reading the text alone.
Northline is simply, a wonderful novel, depressing as it’s themes and events are, it is a novel strung together with hope, the hope of a better, happier life and the hope of conquering demons.
I would recommend paying the extra money to get a copy with the CD but most of all I would recommend you get the novel. It is a beautiful work that should not be missed. It deserves a place on your bookshelf, give it one.