The Motel Life, by Willy Vlautin

A road trip through American fiction that travels light and fast
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The Independent Culture

At any given time there is, somewhere in American fiction, a man sitting in a bar, stone broke and drinking whiskey and beer, and wondering whether to turn up for work or just high-tail out of town. He's there in Bukowski, and Denis Johnson, and in newcomers like Matthew McIntosh. He's there too in this debut novel by Willy Vlautin, moonlighting from his day-job as singer-songwriter in alt.country band Richmond Fontaine.

The low-life glamour of gambling debts, dead-end jobs and permanent hangovers travels well. Not many people do anything similar over here, with the same sense of small town, big-sky melancholy. So British readers looking for a shot of post-Beat generation blues should reach with confidence for Vlautin's book, which details a few desperate weeks in the life of Frank Flannigan.

Frank's getting by on delivery work, and drinking most nights until he passes out, when "bad luck" arrives in the form of his brother Jerry Lee, who turns up at four in the morning, having just knocked down and killed a kid while driving drunk. They decide to run, heading north through driving snow. But the escape peters out, and they end up back home in Reno, Las Vegas's poor cousin in Nevada. The sad circle of the plot mirrors Frank's trapped thoughts that return obsessively to life before the death of their mother, and to his ex-girlfriend Annie James, whom he threw out when he found her turning tricks to save her prostitute mother's neck.

The brothers' relationship is at the centre of the book. Vlautin is clearly reaching back past Bukowski and the others to the granddaddy of all tragic road stories, that of Lenny and George in Of Mice and Men.

Jerry, with a missing leg after an accident jumping a freight train, is dependent on Frank for guidance and reassurance. Frank makes up bedtime stories to soothe his brother to sleep, whether holed up in a snowbound Montana field or another dingy motel room. The stories, with their childish mix of sex, adventure and optimism, stand in for Lenny and George's longed-for farm, with its famous rabbits. Frank and Jerry don't get their happy ending, but there is an unloved dog they adopt, and a final trip to track down Annie James. It's enough to give a sense of hope to this serene and assured piece of minor-key Americana.

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