Please Note: This review has been slightly edited. I based some of my original comments on the belief that Vlautin's novel was a reissue of a book originally published in the UK in 1999. I got this information from the book's own copyright page, which clearly states, "First UK paperback edition published in 1999 by Faber and Faber Limited." I've since confirmed with Vlautin's publicist that the 1999 copyright date is a typographical error: the book was only just published in the UK in 2006. Before I found this out, I was mystified as to why the HarperCollins publicity machine wasn't more upfront about how old a book it was. Well, mystery solved: It's not even a year old. My opinion of the HarperCollins publicity department has improved significantly. Meanwhile, my opinion of the HarperCollins proofreading department has fallen off a bit, and my opinion of Willy Vlautin's body of work is entirely unchanged. -SK
There's this short little book, written in the 1990's by a not-so-young-anymore young guy, narrated by a protagonist who's done a lot of hard living, who sort of wanders aimlessly but retains his sense of childlike wonder about the world and the things that are in it. It's an absolutely flawless pieces of poetry, the kind of thing that makes me weep, actually weep, when no one is looking. The book begins with a car crash, the inevitability of which is rendered thusly: "My jaw ached. I knew every raindrop by its name. I sensed everything before it happened. I knew a certain Oldsmobile would stop for me even before it slowed, and by the sweet voices of the family inside I knew we'd have an accident in the storm."
There's this other short little book, set inthe 1990's, whose protagonist is a hard-living yet wide-eyed innocent kid who does a lot of drinking and gambling but retains a childlike innocence about the world and the things that are in it. It's so leaden and formulaic, it makes me despair for the state of American writing. The book also begins with a car crash, the inevitability of which is rendered thusly: "Bad luck, it falls on people every day. It's one of the only certain truths."
The first book is Jesus' Son by Denis Johnson, a multitalented poet, novelist, and playwright who took the dissipated life of a drug-addled man in his twenties and elevated it to an almost mystical, saintly meditation on redemption and loss. The second book is The Motel Life by Willy Vlautin, the singer of an obscure alt-country outfit called Richmond Fontaine. It was first published in the UK last year, and is now being released in the US by HarperPerennial, just in time to capitalize on the release of a new Richmond Fontaine album, Thirteen Cities. From what I gather, Richmond Fontaine has built up quite the British and European following over the past decade. One review in a UK magazine said they are well known to fans of the "Americana genre": something that doesn't really exist here in the same form. British and Irish reviews of Vlautin's novel also use the word "Americana" liberally. I get the sense that it's popular over there because it depicts a kind of defeated, romantic, western, lonely open road sensibility that has no analogue in Britain, that appears "authentically" American and totally exotic if you grew up in, say, London. But let's compare books again: Jesus' Son treads the same geographic and demographic terrain as Vlautin's book, it reads like it was written by a man who walked through hellfire and came through it clutching one of Satan's hot coals, as proof. On the other hand, The Motel Life reads like it was written by a man who read Jesus' Son (along with the complete works of Raymond Carver, perhaps) and thought he'd try that, too.
Vlautin bites off way more than he can chew with this story, a meandering tale of two brothers ekeing out one of the most miserable existences in fiction since "The Little Match Girl." Frank Flannigan, the narrator, and his older brother Jerry Lee, both in their late teens, are living in Reno on their dead mother's life savings. Ever since she died of cancer they have been attempting to live on their own, so as to avoid foster care and all its attendant horrors. But they're not doing too good a job of it, to say the least. They hop from sleazy motel to motel, working odd jobs like scrubbing down vehicles in a used car lot. They hang out in casinos with ne'er-do-wells, they have sex with sad abused girls, and they drink. They drink more than it seems humanly possible to drink. Beer is consumed on nearly every page of the book, at every hour of the day, sometimes alongside Pepto Bismol or a glass of milk.
Jerry Lee has already lost a leg while train-hopping when the story begins, but the misery carnival has barely begun. Driving drunk, he has hit and killed a kid on a bike. Displaying a virtuoso talent for poor decision-making, Frank and Jerry Lee decide to dump the kid's body on the side of the road and run. What follows is a series of flashbacks that get us up to speed on how all this came to be, interspersed with made-up stories that Frank tells Jerry Lee when they can't sleep.
The narrative is oddly unmoored in time, there are almost no references that will help you figure out what year it's supposed to be (Willie Nelson is the favorite singer of the brothers). Also they never seem to consume any drug other than beer, which seems surprising, since I'd think it would actually be easier and cheaper for a couple of teenagers in Reno to get high than buy a six-pack. The only detail grounding the story in time is that the climax takes place during the week of the Tyson-Holyfield heavyweight championship bout. Reno and its myriad motels are unrelentingly bleak: It's always cold and just about to snow, the asphalt is always lit by neon, and the next big win is always just out of reach. You could invent a fun drinking game where every time a character says he "Hurts Real Bad," you do a shot. The characters are wooden, the dialogue rings false, Reno as rendered here is like a stage set. Every glimmer of hope or change is snatched away, and by page fifty you can already guess how it's all going to end. (Hint: not well.).
The American debut of The Motel Life is getting the full frontlist treatment from HarperPerennial, and not only that, it's a "P.S." edition: it has a special section of bordered pages in the back that contain an interview with Willy Vlautin and other supporting materials. Harper has been doing a lot of this, a sort of DVD Special Feature in book form. And just like on a DVD, the special features can be fascinating and revelatory, or they can be totally superfluous. In the interview, Willy Vlautin almost seems like a character Denis Johnson could have written, going on about drinking and road life and betting on horses at the track. When asked what the high point of his life would be, he says to the interviewer, "having a girl like you think you're actually alright and worth spending time with." My favorite moment comes when he describes how he sold, for a criminally paltry sum, his complete collection of Charles Bukowski novels: "I had this revelation: Maybe if I got rid of the Bukowski books I wouldn't be a loser anymore. Maybe if I sold the books I wouldn't be sweating to death and hung over...Maybe I'd amount to something. It had to be Bukowski's influence that was ruining me." Oh, Willy, what are we gonna do with you?
I listened to a couple Richmond Fontaine songs online while writing this review, in an attempt to get in the right frame of mind. They were fine, they pretty much sound like Uncle Tupelo (a seminal '90s alt-country band) only with a horn section, and a more limited range of song subjects (living in your mother's basement, betting on horse races). Then, to cleasnse my palate, I listened to an album by the arguable progenitor of alt-country, Gram Parsons, a guy so hardcore he drank himself to death at the age of 27. One of the iconic tunes from his brief career is a soaring, gorgeous duet with Emmylou Harris, a cover of the cheesy rock ballad "Love Hurts": "Some folks fool themselves I guess, but they're not fooling me," goes the bridge. He hits the high note, and you get the sound of a man who's taken his pain and made it beautiful. For a true hard-drinking, soul-searing hit of pure Americana, rather than a stage-managed rehash, listen to some Gram Parsons while you read Denis Johnson. Only in his wildest dreams is Willy Vlautin fit to shine the boots of either man, let alone step into them.