Sunday, July 24, 2011

'The Motel Life' by Willy Vlautin

Willy Vlautin was originally best-known as the lead songer of alt-country group Richmond Fontaine, but has recently won serious plaudits for his third novel, 'Lean on Pete'. Being a forager in the Hodges Figgis bargain basement, I picked up his previous two novels 'The Motel Life' and 'Northline' first, and set to work on them. 'Motel', his debut, is the more impressive of the two books to my mind.

It tells the story of Frank and Jerry Lee Flannigan, two brothers from Reno with a troubled background who go on the run after Jerry Lee kills a teenager while drink-driving. Comparisons have been drawn by some reviewers to 'Of Mice and Men', due to the relationship between the simple Jerry Lee and his sparkier brother Frank, who narrates the story. But this is probably unhelpful to Vlautin, as he never even attempts to sketch out his characters as fully as Steinbeck does. What he does do is to whisk the story along; each short chapter a striking vignette of unhappiness and uncertainty with a winsome illustration at the start. Where the book really succeeds is that, rather being edge-of-your-seat thrilling or meaningful in any particular way, it feels like an excellent evocation of what really would happen if two brothers ran away from a crime. The romantic sub-plot, too, is tender and convincing.

'The Motel Life' will likely attract a wider audience next year when it is released as a movie. Provided the film's dialogue is kept as sparse and simple as the novel's is then it shouldn't lose much in the book to screen transition. Either way, it's an agreeably diverting piece of downtrodden Americana, if somewhat lacking the depth to be much more than that.