Thursday, 26 July 2012

The Motel Life by Willy Vlautin

Vlautin sends his tale hopping across the lake of the imagination reaching its high point with the first hop and following with a series of skips. In the end it sinks into the general water and life closes over it. When the novel was over I didn’t want to know any more, a perfectly coherent world was revealed and that is surely one form of truth. Taking that away is a solid feeling because so many novels are no more than a used tissue of lies.

The Motel Life published in 2006 was the debut novel of Will Vlautin and it is told by Frank Flannagan of Reno a place of gritty despair that he renders well. You have only to think of the mephitic exhalation of the average betting shop expanded to city size. He and his older brother Jerry Lee have been living in motels around the city since their mother died some 6 years previously when Frank was 15 and Jerry Lee a couple of years older. Daddy was a gambling man and having been found out in fraud at his work was sent to jail. On coming out he stayed with the family for a while and then just left and was never seen again. He’s barely the presence of an absence for his sons.

They have dropped out of school and are already hard drinkers working at casual jobs. Frank is a fabulist or to put it in plain English he makes up things to tell his brother. Jerry Lee draws, the comic book drawings in the book are by him. For both of them their art is at least one good place that they can withdraw to. Frank has been put on to this strategy by a car dealer called Earl Hurley that he washed cars for just after his mother died. Earl has noticed him standing in a state of pure blank misery for 10 minutes. He says:

Seems like you’re a pretty tough kid. Look, here’s a piece of advice. I don’t know if it’s any good or not for you, you’re the only one who’ll know if it is. What you got to do is think about the life you want, think about it in your head. Make it a place where you want to be: a ranch, a beach house, a penthouse on the top of a skyscraper. It doesn’t matter what it is, but a place that you can hide out in. When things get rough, go there. And if you find a place and its quits working, just change it. Change it depending on the situation, depending on your mood. Look at it this way, it’ll be like your good luck charm. Make up a place that’s good, that gives you strength, that no one can take away. Then when everybody’s on your ass, or you can’t stop thinking about your mom, you can go there.
‘Okay,' I said.
‘Does that make sense?'
‘I think so, I said. ‘Could it help my brother Jerry Lee?'

The big hop that sets up the story as a whole is Jerry Lee’s accidental killing of a kid who is riding a bike in the early morning in a snow storm. It’s the fault of the cyclist but Jerry has been drinking and so he panics and thinking that he ought to bring the body to a hospital even though he’s obviously dead loads him in the car. Jerry Lee is in his underwear when he calls on Frank because his girlfriend has set fire to his pants so turning up at a police station with this story is probably going to be the start of a long spell of durance vile. They decide to leave the body at the entrance to the hospital and then take off somewhere with a ‘tank full of gas’ that deep rutted escape cliche. The gravitational pull of Reno is too strong and variously and separately they come back. Once back Jerry Lee falls into a depression and afraid to die but seeking some sort of symbolic karmic balance or recompense shoots himself in the thigh of his crippled leg. Details like this are not highlighted with an authorial nudge. It’s Frank’s tale and it’s not the good space the Earl has recommended and will likely contain fanciful elements, American grand guignol that jollies us, the readers of this fiction. Interspersed in the narrative are stories, a farrago of truth and lies, that Frank tells Jerry Lee and others.

This is a short novel that you could read while you were on the Greyhound bus on the run to make a new life. It’s 206 pages long, don’t take more. Read it, it’s great.

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