This seems to be the first of Vlautin’s novels. Before I read anything by him I heard and saw his band Richmond Fontaine. I say, “his band” because he wrote most of the songs, like this one. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s-IznfkAm4w
Songs that tell stories often appeal to me. I won’t go into that just now but Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell have written plenty. So has Richard Thompson. Vlautin’s songs struck me as having a strong narrative structure and his vocal style seems to emphasise that to the extent that I thought he’d be able to write stories like Raymond Carver or Flannery O’Connor.
Another thing I liked about Vlautin’s songs is that he simply puts up the words and leaves me, the listener, to do some work, to think about what’s going on. He doesn’t tell me what to think, he shows me what’s going on. And, what’s more, I believe the stories.
Now, “The Motel Life” is just such a novel. It’s presented in short chapters, with terse information about the hardships two brothers, Frank and Jerry Lee Flannigan, as they manoeuvre their way through life in Reno, Nevada. They’re poor although Frank has a job and they know people who help them out. Unfortunately, Jerry Lee, after getting drunk, drives into a young boy and kills him. Frank covers for him and cares for him. He does so by working in dead end jobs, by selling posssessions and, on one occasion, gambling all their worldly wealth on the Tyson v Douglas fight.
Along the way, Frank gets help from various characters he knows from his or his family’s past. There is a sad, though eventually uplifting love interest and a dog. Frank tells preposterous stories to amuse Jerry Lee and Jerry Lee draws cartoons. Although Jerry Lee is depressed and scared enough to torch their car, there is spirit in the two of them. Against all the odds perhaps.
Eventually, I think the novel is about compassion, a struggle of human strength in the face of appalling circumstance and, yes, love. Frank and Jerry Lee share a fraternal love. They care for each other in their plight. It seems to me that this is the great strength of the novel – Vlautin manages to show the human spirit in what are pretty awful experiences.
Jerry Lee at one point says he’s a “fuck up.” But he recognises that Frank has been in love with a girl who returned that love. That, to Jerry Lee, is important. The two of them could well be losers but there’s more to them and their stories than just that.
The writing has a terse, minimal quality that I admire. There are sections where I feel the hopelessness of the two young men, their hopefulness. Times when I shake my head at their seeming stupidity or naivety. Chapters when I feel like cheering and punching the air. It could be seen as a bleak novel and I would agree up to a point. But, in the end, I can see light at the end of a tunnel. A faint glimmer perhaps but nonetheless a light.
I also got a feeling that there are swathes of USA that are like this. “Nomadland” and “Midnight Cowboy” could be another two examples of the lives of almost down and outs in the wonderful US of A. I’m fully aware that there are homeless people in UK too but this is an American novel. There is country music on the radio, gun shops and Dodge cars.
I enjoyed the novel both for the story and for the writing style. There’s enough good fortune, spirit and humour to drag me past the bleak existence of the characters.