At the end of author Willy Vlautin’s new novel, “The Night Always Comes,” his acknowledgments conclude with a wistful memory of a time when Portland “was a city full of beautiful houses that working-class people could afford to buy.”
Vlautin, a house painter by day and musician by night, was able to scrape together the money to buy a fixer-upper for $72,000 in 2000.
“I want to thank the Rose City for giving me a home and a chance when for a lot of my life I didn’t know there was a chance to be had,” he writes.
Now in “The Night Always Comes,” Vlautin investigates the time-honored notion that home ownership means success. But this tale is set in contemporary Portland, where the housing market has gone bonkers. Home prices have more than tripled, putting the American dream of home ownership out of range for a lot of people.
Thirty-year-old Lynette, her developmentally disabled older brother and their divorced mom live together in a rundown rental. They don’t complain to their landlord about the condition of the dilapidated property, because they understand the precarious situation they’re in. The owner could simply get rid of the problem by selling the house out from under them. They’d be hard-pressed to find any other place to rent at a price they could afford.
Some years earlier the owner had agreed to let them try to meet his asking price before he put the house on the open market. Lynette has been working three jobs since then to raise money for the down payment, but she has a bad credit history. So the plan is for her mom, who has worked at a Fred Meyer store for many years, to apply for the loan.
When the story opens, Lynette has saved up over $80,000 and they have an appointment in a week’s time to get the loan papers signed. But then her mom gets cold feet.
Lynette is beside herself. She tries cajoling: “We’ll have security, we won’t answer to anybody, and we won’t get kicked out. And I’ll do all the work.”
Her mom remains obdurate, so Lynette makes up another plan on the fly. She ventures down a risky path to try to secure the additional money they need. This becomes a harrowing procedural in how to shake down the people who owe you money, how to steal a safe, how to make a drug deal and how to run for your life.
“The Night Always Comes” takes place over 48 hours, with Vlautin blending taut narrative with long, introspective monologues delivered by an assortment of different characters who all seem to be desperately treading water, just one stroke of bad luck away from ruin.
The author is one of the best in the business when it comes to exploring what the flip side of the American dream looks like for people who want to believe in it but may never achieve it, no matter how hard they try.
The Bookmonger is Barbara Lloyd McMichael, who writes this weekly column focusing on the books, authors and publishers of the Pacific Northwest. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org