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. Full of memorable characters and imbued with a beautiful sense of yearning, Northline is an extraordinary portrait of contemporary America from a writer and musician whose work has been lauded as "mournful, understated, and proudly steeped in menthol smoke and bourbon" (New York Times Book Review).
Singer-novelist Vlautin's second novel (after The Motel Life) reads more like a movie treatment than a novel. Allison Johnson, 22, is a high school dropout with a destructive lifestyle (alcoholism, self-mutilation, vituperative boyfriend who knocks her up early in the novel); the only positive influence in Allison's life is her favorite actor, Paul Newman, who appears to her during traumatic moments. Their banal conversations center on Newman's movie roles and how they equip him to continually bail Allison out of her sorry situation. She takes his advice ("get the hell out of Dodge, as they say, and most of all, kid, buck up") and moves from Las Vegas to Reno. But pregnant Allison's life isn't much better in Reno: the cycle of self-loathing continues, and even though Newman implores Allison to turn her life around, the damage is all but done. Much of the writing reads like stage direction, and the abbreviated chapters give the narrative a rushed, slapdash feel.