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R&R 097 | The Motel Life

Couple things:
– My computer crashed a few days ago. Harddisk, kaput. Good news is my dad can replace it and make my baby function again. But my dad doesn't live around the block so have to wait just a little while. Meantime, I make due with my old laptop Seamus, whose age translates to about 80 in human years, but oh he's a feisty old chap. I even managed to get a review ready. The photo, I had to edit it on a different screen so I have no idea if it looks okay, color-wise; may re-edit that later. For now it's good enough 🙂
– The blog turns 2 on the 15th! 😀
That is all.
Willy Vlautin
The Motel Life
First published in: 2006
This edition: Faber and Faber, 2006
ISBN: 978-0-571-22807-2 or 0-571-22807-0
Genre: Americana, fiction
Pages: 206
Cover illustrations by Nate Beaty, jacket design by gray318

(private on flickr for now)

What attracts me about Willy Vlautin's books is that they look so beautiful on the outside (the covert art is pretty, and pretty amazing), but these beautiful outsides usually cover some gritty subject matter. Vlautin delves into an America which a lot of writers just prefer to ignore; his characters are the complete opposite of the faces of America with are preferred by some (example: Louboutin wearing, Cosmo sipping blondes). The Americans you encounter in Vlautin's novels are poor, lost and they make mistakes with heartbreaking, or plain terrible consequences. 
Jerry Lee Flannigan's mistake? Killing a teenager and subsequently fleeing the scene. Before jumping to any conclusions, it's important to know a few things about this event up front:
a) the boy suddenly crossed the road on his bike at 4AM during a blizzard; Jerry Lee or any other car driver – who had right of way – couldn't expect the boy to be there.
b) Jerry Lee claims to his brother Frank he was only driving 20 mph, max.
c) Jerry Lee was "a little drunk" (read: more drunk than a passed out Frank).
Whether the kid was supposed to be there or not, Jerry Lee had been drinking and driving. The end. Fearing he'll have to go to jail, Jerry flees the state with Frank's help.
Vlautin puts the reader is put in a tough spot; we are angry at the brothers for running away, but we quickly realize these men aren't bad people. Regret oozes off the pages, like those clocks in a Dali painting.
The main theme of this book is guilty conscience and the struggle with knowing you did something horrible. I (personally) wouldn't say it's a book about redemption, rather it is about guilt, being consumed by it, and feeling the pain that comes with it in your veins. How it owns you – and ultimately can destroy you and the people who love you. Frank witnesses his brother's demise into guilt, and shares that with us in a frank (no pun intended) narration. It's obvious that Frank is hurting, too – for his brother.
It's their relationship that is the heart of the story. There is a clear strength between the brothers' bond, a closeness that makes this harsh story, at times, feel warm and even optimistic. Jerry Lee depends on Frank, especially now, and Frank is there for him.
The brothers' relationship reminds me a lot of My Name is Earl – Randy is sweet but can't really function well without Earl, who has his dumb moments but is the smarter one of the two. Earl and Randy live in a motel, much like Frank and Jerry Lee, and they are also part of the "white trash class" the rest of America loves to hate.
My Name is Earl is a considerably lighter story about two brothers – it is a sitcom after all – but the brothers' relationship is similar to that of Frank and Jerry Lee. This I liked.
What I disliked is how both Jerry Lee and Frank feel pain for what happened to the boy, but they both continue to behave irresponsibly when it comes to alcohol (Frank drives drunk, Jerry Lee "wishing he'd been there too").
Yes, there is a redemptive storyline apart from Jerry Lee's downward guilt spiral: Frank takes a dog under his wings – and it's cute and I found myself saying out loud multiple times, "Don't let anything happen to that dog"…
But it's also, maybe, not enough.

It's unreasonable for a reader to demand that alcoholic characters hop on the wagon immediately and remain sober for the rest of their lives, but it's hard for me to accept their feelings of guilt knowing that somewhere along the line, the brothers would drink and drive, and hit someone again. Having been part of an accident that killed someone, why would you want to risk repetition of this, and why would you increase the chance of re-occurrence? Yes, the brothers struggle with their conscience, but continuing this behavior does make me feel like they didn't learn from that terrible accident.

I sympathized with the brothers, but I also felt disappointed with them. 

I wouldn't be surprised if Vlautin purposely went in this direction, though; it does make a reader think about life and how it's not easy for everyone. I do admire Vlautin for being an unapologetic writer who's not afraid to let people, his protagonists, be that imperfect. As a reader, I struggled with feeling either too understanding or too judgmental of the brothers. I say this all the time, but this one calls for it to be said again for good measure: There is no black and white.

Maybe I would have understood it a little better, if I knew the brothers better. I do feel that I got mostly glimpses of these people. The 202 page book, in my opinion, could easily do with a couple dozen extra pages to provide more insight, especially considering this book is told from a first person perspective. Frank was honest, but I wish he would have told us more.
NORTHLINE was also thin but it was written from a third person perspective. The distance between us (observants, readers) and the main character worked because of the moviescript "action-describing-she's-now-doing-this" writing style. For THE MOTEL LIFE, which is Frank's own account, more depth may have helped. 
The minimalist prose – not how much was divulged by Frank, but how it was put into words – on the other hand worked perfectly with the bleak subject matter. The harshness of what these two men went through together had more impact on the reader because of the matter-of-fact tone used. No prettyfying this. THE MOTEL LIFE isn't the kind of drama associated with soap operas. There's no dreamlike soft glow to what you're witnessing as a reader, and there are no miraculous (and countless) resurrections from death. The teenager Jerry Lee hits with his car is harshly, truly dead, and there are consequences.
But perhaps that is how it's supposed to be. Vlautin's characters often get stuck, just like real people often get caught in a web and can't for the life of them get out. That, or they accept the hands they've been dealt. Perhaps I should look at this book and see it for what it is: a sad look into what could be the real world, which often is disappointing.
Despite this, the book remains optimistic enough – so don't be discouraged yet. When you still have the ability to hope, you've still got something going for you.

R&R 039 | Northline

R&R 038 is ready, but on hold for publishing here – I hope to add it soon!

Willy Vlautin
First published in: 2008
This edition: Faber & Faber, 2008
Cover design by Faber
Cover illustration by Nate Beaty
Soundtrack by Willy Vlautin & Paul Brainard

Last summer I got it into my head to try and find a book that I’d read about once, but all I could remember was that the cover had a pretty illustration of a snowglobe on it, and the book included an accompanying soundtrack. Failing to remember the author’s name or the full title was not exactly helpful. It wasn't until the very last day of my summer traveling, when I hopped into a giganormous Borders store, when a stroke of pure luck put me in front of the bookcase which held a copy of Willy Vlautin's "Northline". My eyes resting on its spine, my hands already gravitating towards it, I immediately recognized it as the book I’d been searching for. What a relief.

Being new to Vlautin, his second novel “Northline” has taken me by surprise. I was expecting a sweet and lovely story telling one of those rare stories that will inspire you, one you won’t forget. What I ended up reading, is the complete opposite of ‘nice’… it’s even better than I had hoped for.

Is this a beautiful book or a comfortable one? No. Not this. This is raw.

Vlautin has written a book that isn't sweet, but brutal in its honesty, an eye-opener to life in the poverty-stricken class of America’s society. The book’s characters aren't Miss USA contestants or suited up businessmen, but troubled people. There’s bad people… but also those good, kind-hearted people trapped in really bad situations – people such as Allison (the girl, Vlautin calls her), a young woman who flees an abusive relationship and hitchhikes to Reno to build up a new life for herself there.

Struggling with her tremendously low self-esteem, she finds solace in her imaginary conversations with (the late) Paul Newman, her hero. Some people get a manicure to feel better, others imagine they're chatting with their biggest inspirations. Paul Newman berates Allison for beating down on herself too hard, and paves the road leading her to aspire to fight for herself. Those conversations at times seemed to exist so Vlautin could show off his knowledge of the movies Paul Newman’s starred in and what character he played "in that one" and "in that one". But the idea was charming, nonetheless, and necessary too, I think. Paul Newman provides a gentle counterbalance, a bright force illuminating Allison’s darker experiences, which are divulged in the book.

As raw as “Northline” is, it is uplifting without being overly sentimental. The things that happen in Allison’s life, good and bad, are told by Vlautin pretty much objectively and it is up to you to react to it. This novel is written with a nonchalant air: feel as you must about it. I happened to be moved by the everyday kindnesses of the new people in Allison’s life, people who show to have faith in her through little things. When I finished, it all left me feeling cozy and optimistic in the end, but not in that fairytale kind of way. This was realistic, human.

The alt-county instrumental soundtrack which is included in my edition of the book matches the novel’s melancholic but hopeful atmosphere, helping to gain a better understanding of everything that happens from Allison’s point of view and how she might be processing it all. Vlautin, who’s also in the band Richmond Fontaine, has proven himself to be a talented writer and musician, and has shown himself to be gifted at combining both of his skills.


R&R series (and its photos, reviews) © Karin Elizabeth 2008-2009