I first came across Willy Vlautin’s The Motel Life in the back of an antique store in San Francisco. A girl with oversized glasses was presiding over a closet lending library with a stool and a ledger. The books were organized around the recommendations of local writers.
“It’s a hell of a book,” the girl said.
I was flipping through the black and white sketches that introduce each chapter. The first one is of the Reno arch on Virginia Street.
“We just got out of Reno,” I said.
In many ways, getting out of Reno is what Vlautin’s novel is about. The Flannigan brothers are caught up in Reno’s peculiar blend of cheap glamour and desolation. They are not chronic gamblers, but there is a certain inescapable spirit in the air – something that urges people to stake everything and win big or lose big all at once, rather than drag their lives through a series of tedious bets. In a gambling town, the difference between the big score and total ruin is paper thin, and yet that is where the vast majority of life tends to take place. No amount of sudden wealth can save Frank Flannigan from himself; and not even the most crippling turn of events can keep Jerry Lee from hoping with all of his heart that things will get better. Reno is their limbo, a place where circumstances always seem, like the odds at a casino, to be stacked in someone else’s favour.
The novel opens like a long lost Raymond Carver story:
The night it happened I was drunk, almost passed out, and I swear to God a bird came flying through my motel room window.
Carver’s presence is certainly in the background, as is that of Dennis Johnson and Tom Waits (Vlautin is also a musician). You imagine them occupying the motel rooms across the hall from Frank and Jerry Lee, men battling fiercely against the particular trappings of their own ordinary lives. Their presences are felt but never in a way that encroaches on the novel’s integrity. Vlautin has marked his territory carefully, like a dog that has sniffed around some before pissing in public. Frank Flannigan’s plaintive tone is familiar but never derivative:
They didn’t believe me about the bird and said I was going to have to pay for the window and the labor. I said I would, but I knew I couldn’t, that I had less than sixty dollars to my name, and it didn’t seem like I could get a job with the way I was feeling.
The Motel Life is full of people who are almost done; they have been knocked down repeatedly, but still find some way to crawl back to their corner and last another round. The Flannigan brothers usually opt for one of three responses to life’s cruellest knocks: run, crawl under the covers, or take refuge in a story where a few good breaks even out the bad. Facing up to things directly is seldom considered, for it seems too much like an acknowledgment of defeat, of giving up on that one lucky break that could set things right again:
My mind went racing like that through a thousand thoughts before the fight finally started. By then my nerves were completely shot and the odds were down to seven to one. The sports book was full and I was half drunk and nervous as I’d never been. The commentators on the TV favored Tyson, the people around us cheered him even though he was a rapist, a felon, and I began to lose hope before it even began.
For all the novel’s pain and darkness, there is an uplifting sense that people are, for the most part, doing the best they can. Friends can be counted on and trusted most of the time. Strangers may not always have the means to pull you out of your rut, but they won’t always kick you either. Above all, the bonds of brotherhood are unassailable. In The Motel Life, humanity is essentially decent. We may lie and cheat and hurt each other, but we never feel good about it; many of us are just working through our own long stretches of bad luck that make us increasingly cornered and desperate:
‘There’s one for you,’ Jerry Lee would say. ‘Look at that sorry looking bastard.’ And the guy he would point to was always a sorry looking bastard. Most likely a drunk who gambled the remainder of his life away. Dressed in old clothes which were always wrinkled and unwashed. There’s thousands of them.
The novel succeeds in making us identify with Frank and Jerry Lee, but it does much more than inspire pathos for a couple of down-on-their-luck brothers. That feeling of sympathetic sadness stretches out to everyone else as well, all the sorry looking bastards who probably really are sorry for something, though not quite able to confront or express it, and so just hoping to win their tickets out of Reno.
— Kasper Hartman