THE MOTEL LIFE (2006) + NORTHLINE (2008) by Willy Vlautin.
I got interested in the novels of Willy Vlautin after seeing a tower of his latest novel,The Free, piled up in an ace bookshop called No Alibis in Belfast this summer. That a cool store would order so many copies made me think this was worth checking out.
I soon realised that I know Vlautin already, not as a novelist but as the lead singer and driving force behind a fine Alt.Country band called Richmond Fontaine whose songs are like miniature stories. A track and album of their has one of my all time favourite titles; it’s called We Used To Thing The Freeway Sounded Like A River.
After writing great tunes like this, there are probably lots of listeners who told him “Gee, I bet you could write a great novel”. I’m sure many said this to Bob Dylan too and then he came up with Tarantula which is kind of cool if you don’t mind stories that are cut and pasted in a random sequence. This demonstrated Dylan’s debt to the Beat poets and also gave an insight into how much acid he was on. In comparison, Vlautin’s writing is more conventional. His novels have a beginning, middle and end; more or less in that order.
Critics have generously compared Vlautin to John Steinbeck which tends to happen a lot when the characters are those that have slipped through the safety net of life. Typically they come from dysfunctional families, have dead-end jobs, drink a lot of beer, smoke like chimneys and eat shit food. They live from pillar to post, eking out a living and trying their best to stay on the straight and narrow. They spend a lot of time in bars, diners and cheap motels. They are exasperating but real.
William Bell wrote a Blues song for Albert King in 1967 called Born Under A Bad Sign and the lyrics sum up the plight of these lost souls. The chorus goes: “if it wasn’t for bad luck, I wouldn’t have no luck at all”.
Willy Vlautin was born in Reno, Nevada and that’s the main setting for both his first two novels which I decided to read before tackling his latest.
I only know Reno from Johnny Cash’s Folsom Prison Blues (“I shot a man from Reno just to watch him die”) and my mental image of it as a tough, uncompromising city is largely borne out by Vlautin’s fiction.
The Motel life purports to be written by Frank Flannigan and follows the struggles of him and his elder brother Jerry Lee. Their lives were already on a low ebb and are worsened when Jerry Lee accidentally runs over a kid in a snowstorm. This sets in motion a sequence of events where staying upbeat gets increasingly hard. The cover image of a young woman, which is misleading as this is a book about men’s lives. The cover would have been more suited to Northline where the main character is an alcoholic named Allison Johnson who desperately tries to build her life and escape a violent, racist thug of a boyfriend.
The books are like the music Vlautin makes in that they have a gritty authenticity and he has a genuine compassion for his characters. He doesn’t really do happy endings but he leaves a few glimmers of hope so they are not totally depressing.
The most positive aspect of his writing is that he presents these lives warts and all but is never condescending or judgmental. It is a cliché to say that when you’re in a hole you should stop digging but Vlautin’s characters find it hard to do this. They have to overcome a shitload of self loathing before they can forge a decent life for themselves.
The Motel Life is quite disjointed and the ending seems rushed but it’s pretty impressive as a first book and it even got made into a movie which I’ve yet to see. His second book, Northline, is much tighter and if it drifts a bit in places then this at least shows he’s on the same wavelength as his characters.
I get the impression Vlautin’s on a roll as a novelist and I’m now looking forward to reading his other two books – Lean On Pete and The Free..