Saturday, November 7, 2015

The Motel Life (2006)

Let’s Get Lost

Published: June 24, 2007

There’s a moment in “The Motel Life,” Willy Vlautin’s downcast first novel, when the protagonist, dead drunk, is helping his dying brother use the toilet. “This is the greatest feeling I’ve ever had,” the dying brother sighs, and by that point in the story, you believe him. The book is an unapologetic ode to self-defeat, a loose collection of deadpan cataclysms in which the most heartening episode revolves around the rescue of an undernourished dog. Its charm is unassuming, and a little clumsy at the outset, but Vlautin’s novel rewards the patient. At times its appeal is irresistible.
The plot of “The Motel Life” can be summed up in a sentence: two spectacularly luckless brothers, Frank and Jerry Lee, break the law in Nevada and suffer the consequences. Frank is lying passed out in his motel room in Reno when his brother bursts in, half naked and in tears, to tell him he has just hit a teenage boy with his 1974 Dodge Fury and killed him. Jerry Lee is drunk too, even drunker than Frank, so there’s no question of calling the police. In a matter of a few hours their meager belongings have been scrounged together, the boy’s body has been deposited near the hospital, and the brothers are headed north toward Montana with less than $400 between them. A partial list of their provisions includes a 12-pack of beer, a package of glazed doughnuts, a pint of Jim Beam and a bottle of Pepto-Bismol.
It’s clear before they start out that the brothers will never make the Nevada state line, if only because “The Motel Life” is not that kind of novel. “Bad luck, it falls on people every day,” Frank confides early on. “It’s one of the only certain truths. It’s always on deck, it’s always just waiting.” At this point, it occurred to me that I’d learned a second life lesson from the story so far: beer before liquor, never been sicker. And yet I kept reading, and I was happy I did.

Subsequent twists involve a shotgun, a prostitute and the 1996 Tyson-Holyfield fight, but the true pleasures of the novel loiter elsewhere. The relationship between Frank and Jerry Lee is sparely sketched, sometimes maddeningly so, but it has an undeniable self-effacing sweetness. As Jerry Lee goes into a tailspin, Frank quickly becomes his brother’s keeper, bathing him and buying him beer and telling him off-the-cuff fairy tales to dispel thoughts of suicide.
Luckily for Jerry Lee and the reader, Frank’s bedtime stories read like wino stand-up comedy: “I drove over to the Cotton Tail Ranch. I met a girl named Deana and over the course of a week I spent $4,000 on her. ... I talked to her and her madam, and for $1,000 upfront I got to take her out of the brothel. I wanted to play a game of tennis with her. I bought her a racket and a tennis outfit. ... She beat me three games straight. Six-love, 6-3, 6-4. Who would have thought?”
It’s a cliché to compare a novel to a story overheard in a bar, but “The Motel Life” insists on the comparison. Willy Vlautin is the singer and songwriter for Richmond Fontaine, a band based in Portland, Ore., and the music he makes is very much like his writing: mournful, understated and proudly steeped in menthol smoke and bourbon. Slighter than Carver, less puerile than Bukowski, Vlautin nevertheless manages to lay claim to the same bleary-eyed territory, and surprisingly — perhaps even unintentionally — to make it new.

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The Motel Life (2006) is the debut novel by musician andwriter Willy Vlautin. It tells the story of two brothers fromReno, Nevada, whose lives are thrown into turmoil following a tragic accident. It was made into a movie starring Emile HirschStephen Dorff, and Dakota Fanning, and released in November of 2013.


Frank and Jerry Lee Flannigan are two down-and-out brothers who live a meager existence in Reno, Nevada. Both men are high school dropouts who live in cheap motel rooms, work at odd jobs for money, and drink heavily. One night, while driving drunk during a blizzard, Jerry Lee accidentally hits and kills a teenage boy on a bicycle. Although the accident is the boy's fault, there are no witnesses, and Jerry Lee is certain that the police will put the blame on him. He convinces Frank to leave town with him and flee to Montana. Along the way, Jerry Lee abandons Frank in Wyoming and then burns the car in a secluded Idaho forest. Both men return separately to Reno.
The police seem to take no interest in the case, so both men attempt to settle back into their Reno lives. Frank adopts an abused, half-frozen dog he finds during a snowstorm. Acting on a tip from a friend, he scrapes together $800 and bets it on the Tyson-Douglas boxing match, winning more than $5,000. He also tracks down the family of the dead teenager and stands outside their home, watching them come and go. Jerry Lee, meanwhile, becomes consumed by guilt and attempts suicide, shooting himself in the leg. He survives and lands in the hospital. On the day of the Tyson-Douglas fight, the police come to question Jerry Lee; they have discovered the burned-out wreck of his car in Idaho. Once again, Jerry Lee convinces Frank to flee Reno.
Frank uses his winnings to buy a used car. He leaves $1,000 at the home of the dead teenager, sneaks Jerry Lee out of the hospital, and heads to the town of Elko, Nevada, to hide from the police. Frank's ex-girlfriend Annie lives in Elko, and he secretly hopes to run into her. But Jerry Lee's wounds are far from healed and he quickly becomes very sick.
  • Frank Flannigan – Protagonist and the novel's narrator. A gifted storyteller, he was once a promising baseball talent but dropped out of high school soon after the death of his mother. He drinks heavily and suffers from ulcers.
  • Jerry Lee Flannigan – Protagonist. Frank's older brother and a talented artist. As a teenager, he lost the lower half of one leg in a train accident. He is depressed and feels that he is a failure, feelings which are greatly magnified after he hits and kills the teenager.
  • Mrs. Flannigan – Frank and Jerry Lee's mother. She dies from an unspecified disease when the boys are 16 and 14, respectively.
  • Jimmy Flannigan – Frank and Jerry Lee's father. He suffers from a gambling addiction and eventually walks out on the family after rendering them penniless.
  • Earl Hurley – A used-car dealer and Frank's ex-employer. He tries to mentor Frank, although it is often in vain.
  • Tommy Locowane – Frank and Jerry Lee's long-time friend. He saves Jerry Lee's life after the train accident. He has a terrible gambling addiction and, in desperation, gets Frank to wager heavily on theTyson-Douglas fight in an attempt to erase a $2,000 gambling debt.
  • Annie James – Frank's old girlfriend. Annie's mother forces her into prostitution; when Frank catches Annie in the act, he breaks up with her. He later travels to Elko in the hopes of meeting her again.
  • Wes Johnson Denny – A teenager who rides his bicycle into the path of Jerry Lee's car during a blinding snowstorm. He is killed in the ensuing collision.
  • Old Man Jenkins (The dog) – Tango Hecklin
  • AuthorWilly Vlautin
    IllustratorNate Beaty
    CountryUnited States
    PublisherFaber and Faber
    Publication date
    April 5, 2007
    Media typePrint (Paperback)
    Pages224 pp
    Followed byNorthline
  • Reception[edit]

    "The Motel Life" received a favorable review from New York Times critic John Wray, who wrote: "Slighter than Carver, less puerile than Bukowski, Vlautin nevertheless manages to lay claim to the same bleary-eyed territory, and surprisingly – perhaps even unintentionally – to make it new.".[1] Johnathan Gibbs ofThe Independent noted: "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.".[2]

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