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Tuesday, July 10, 2007

The Motel Life

posted by on July 10 at 12:02 PM


Just finished Willy Vlautin’s first novel The Motel Life and I’m floored.

Vlautin is the lead singer of Portland alt-country faves Richmond Fontaine. I’ve long been told that I’d like the band but I’ve never checked them out. I certainly will now.

But it’s the book that I’d to talk about. The story is set during a fridgid winter in Reno, Nevada, sometime around now, though there’s a sense that the wayward, rootless characters in The Motel Life could come from any place, any time. The story follows Frank Flannigan and his depressed brother Jerry Lee as they figure out what to do with their already crumbling lives after Jerry Lee’s involved in a fatal hit and run.

Anybody who’s ever done a lot of hard-core traveling—I’m talking hitch-hiking and Greyhound, not airlines or cruise ships—knows of the other side of the American dream. The freeway drifters, the rest stop campers, folks on the run from something or to somewhere—the kinds of people you see and make up stories about because you have to place them somehow, make them less ghostly, more real—these are the people that inhabit this book. Vlautin grew up in Reno and spent plenty of time on the road with his band. He’s got the right background, the right experience to understand both the setting and the motivation for these characters.

Frank and Jerry Lee are homeless, living in used cars bought with day labor cash, holing up in cheap motels for as long as they can afford them, eating convenience store meals. Vlautin captures both the dejection and the sense of freedom wrought by being totally possessionless (“freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose,” right?), but the brothers have no choice in the matter, dragged down by the weight of their own failures. “We’re fuckups, Frank,” Jerry Lee says at one point, humorlessly, truthfully. His brother doesn’t argue.

The most painful heartbreak arises from knowing you know you can do better but simply not doing it. As Frank tells wild stories of sailing ships and desert islands and war heroism, his vision of another life becomes clear, but it’s all only stories he tells his brother to allay his guilt and depression. More than fantasy it’s the solace of liquor that the brothers seek the most, another weight around their necks they can’t shake.

And despite it all there’s hope here, too, in human endurance, in the need for resolution. As Vlautin writes with prose that’s simple but not simplistic, immediately engaging and no-frills, that hope becomes the underlying pulse of the story. It’s what makes this book feel so damn real, so powerful, so much like life, even if it’s not yours.

Willy Vlautin reads from The Motel Life tomorrow, July 11 at the University Bookstore, 4326 University Way NE.

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just finished this book myself...
having been a fan of RF since Miles From-era i found it to be comfortably familiar territory – i never tire of Willy's characters that are basically good people finding themselves in luckless circiumstances. Beautifully written and beautifully illustrated. Thanks again Willy.

Posted by ryin | July 12, 2007 9:44 AM

On the same topic, and hopefully as good as the book Jonathan is recommending, is the upcoming "Hotel Theory/Hotel Women" by the talented Wayne Koestenbaum (due out from Soft Skull). Reminiscent of David Shields mixed with Nick Tosches, it's a great combination of hotel living observations and fiction starring Lana Turner and Liberace.

Posted by Chris Estey | July 12, 2007 12:37 PM

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