What makes the book tick is the noir-like device of creating a hardscrabble demimonde barely holding on, being pushed into nooks and crannies by an encroachment of wealth that hovers just beyond reach like a grotesque mirage. Vlautin knows how to wrench drama and a tragic sense of inevitability from the forces at play, and he knows how to make them feel real, investing his characters with a vitality that belies the austerity of his prose.
Vlautin is one of those novelists who can make you believe much of the craft lies in hiding the craft. He often writes with aching plainness and a sinewy precision, with an aversion to linguistic ornament that leaves most of the atmosphere to tellingly placed detail and dialogue.
The deliberate flensing of emotion in his work can heighten emotion, too, as with the descriptions of Lynette dabbling in sex work, related in scenes about as deadpan and disenchanting as sex writing gets.
Indeed, hard times in Vlautin’s fiction can be laid on thick, and a lesser writer wouldn’t get away with the level of bleakness he admits. If he hadn’t imbued Lynette with such irrepressible force of character, and if he weren’t so nimble in assembling the jigsaw of misfortune she encounters, the book might have descended into misery porn.
It never does, though. Quite the opposite. Lynette’s dogged mission to improve her lot and keep her family together at any cost will have you barracking for the underdog even as it becomes agonising – even though you know (this is Willy Vlautin we’re talking about) that the author won’t relent and would rather die himself than give in to sentimentality, or anything that smells like false uplift.
Either of those cop-outs would let the reader off the hook, of course. The Night Always Comes offers a bracing walk on the other side of the street. It is a book that seems to insist, with as much taut power as it can, that social inequality, and a want of affordable housing, are realities in which we’re all implicated.