To paraphrase Forrest Gump, reading books is like a box of chocolates, you never know what you’re gonna get. Unless, I suppose, if you only read one author in one genre of fiction.
So, with Nicky having given The Motel Life an “It’s…… o…..k…” I thought I’d find out for myself. Some books have a build up – this was featured on Radio 4’s A Good Read and Benjamin Myers (one of my absolute favourite authors) described Willy Vlautin as one of (if not the) best American novelist around.
What is all the fuss about?
I’ll tell you, The Motel Life is a novel about life. About two brothers living on the margins of society. About rolling with the punches but also about being defeated by the punches. About loyalty, family, responsibility. About opportunity, but mostly about the lack of it. About guilt and a deep sense of right and wrong. About finding (or not finding) love. About pain.
Two brothers, surviving on the scraps thrown to them, go on the run after an error of judgement leads to a fatal accident. They then rummage through the mess of small town America. Our narrator, Frank, and his elder brother Jerry Lee (along with the dog they acquire along the way) bounce off a small cast of characters. They are far from simple, but their story is told with an uncomplicated delivery.
Vlautin’s prose is personal, crisp and percussive – I could feel the rhythm of the story pulling me through the pages. I’m no American cultural expert, but The Motel Life could be an early Springsteen album. Jerry Lee drives the narrative – cracking the top off another beer and facing each challenge without a dramatic build up – and is a comfort to his brother as their luck deteriorates and a boost when good fortune comes their way. He also did that for me as a reader, Vlautin (through Jerry Lee) explores a persistent but fragile humanity which I felt obliged to believe in and left me needing to root for the brothers despite their desperate, poverty stricken cause.
Day to day life is often complicated for ‘normal’ people and Willy Vlautin demonstrates this with these naive but strangely determined brothers. I suppose you could call it Americana (it just wouldn’t fit set in my small town here in the UK) and for me it is an understated gem.
I absolutely loved it.