THE NIGHT ALWAYS COMES
By Willy Vlautin
Craftsman and small clapboard houses still dot the streets of Portland, Ore., as they have for over a century, but next to them now you will find walls of steel and glass stretching up into the city’s gray skies. If you’re familiar with the area, the sight may be chilling. These condos stand in the place of old churches and Boys & Girls Clubs, on lots purchased by developers and sold by families who often had little choice. You may get a sense, looking at half-built 12-unit condominiums with rents twice as high as those families’ mortgages, that they’re not just replacing the old ways of Portland. They may be replacing everyone who can’t keep up.
Lynette, the protagonist of Willy Vlautin’s determined new novel, “The Night Always Comes,” feels the dread of Portland’s transformation down to her bones. This is a novel that lives firmly in the melancholia of the city’s gentrification, hurtling readers through one woman’s desperation to keep her life afloat in a city that’s pushing its working class out, one razed lot at a time.
For years Lynette has been up at 4 a.m. every day. She works two jobs while attending community college and caring for a brother with developmental disabilities (Vlautin never specifies his condition). She does all this with a single goal in mind: to raise enough money to put a down payment on the house her family has lived in for Lynette’s whole life. That down payment, in combination with a loan to be taken out by her mother, is the only way for the three to stay together. After years of depression and rage she’s worked hard to control, Lynette is bent on controlling this as well. Her dream is simply to chart a future for her family that would allow them to live without the looming specter of displacement.
But when Lynette’s mother reneges on the deal, that dream disappears in an instant. Lynette spirals, and most of the novel takes place over a single night as she tears feverishly through Portland, chasing down any lead that might result in some extra cash that could right the situation. Most of the people Lynette meets on this tragic, desperate night do not react kindly, and as the evening turns violent the exhaustion and isolation of her poverty ring clear as day.
The novel, Vlautin’s sixth, stalls out during its many long monologues spelling out exactly what each character is thinking in clunky detail. Vlautin’s etchings of the city’s poor, white population are at times overwrought, especially around the topic of weight, as are the inner lives of anyone who’s not the main character. That tendency is extra egregious when it comes to Lynette’s mother, a dreary antagonist whose motives no number of monologues manage to three-dimensionalize.
The novel regains its footing, though, in the moments where we get to live in Lynette’s inner world. “The whole city is starting to haunt me,” Lynette says in the novel’s most potent scene. “All the new places, all the big new buildings, just remind me that I’m nothing, that I’m nobody.” The central question of her night resonates beyond this one family: Can one person be built to sink, or is she set up to fail by an entire system designed to keep the poor not just working, but hurting? Anyone who’s scrambled within the confines of poverty may relate to Lynette’s quest for agency over her own fate. With “The Night Always Comes,” Vlautin chronicles the downfall of a city. As Lynette’s story illustrates, it’s an undoing that is deeply personal, too.