Cult Classic – The Motel Life – Willy Vlautin
It might seem laughable to imagine the frontman of a rock band sitting down to write a Great American Novel – but then Willy Vlautin is no ordinary frontman…
As the singer and lead songwriter of alt-country outfit Richmond Fontaine, Vlautin’s songs are basically stories; musical novellas; tender and heartfelt tales of working-class Americans struggling through life.
Richmond Fontaine has built a small, but dedicated, following with their brand of folksy storytelling, and Vlautin has crafted a career out of penning decent-but-flawed characters living on the periphery of mainstream society; hard-up people making their way in harsh times.
It’s this style of writing that has led Vlautin to tell the story of Frank and Jerry Lee – brothers from Reno, Nevada, and two of modern life’s losers eking out a meagre existence in the US mid-west.
Frank and Jerry Lee are essentially archetypal working-class characters, a breed of Americans from blue-collar backgrounds that have been forgotten and forsaken by the world. Frank and Jerry Lee need to make it on their own, or not at all.
The siblings’ lives are thrown into further turmoil following a tragic car accident in which a young cyclist dies. They flee town and travel from rough sleeping holes to cold truck stops; from greasy diners to neon-lit dive bars. They live hand-to-mouth, barely carrying enough cash to cover gas and food. The guilt consumes Jerry Lee, and he eventually attempts suicide.
The story is basically a downward spiral for our two protagonists, but it’s handled in a way that doesn’t feel like a constant downer. If anything, the novel is a sort of hard-luck rollercoaster, with Frank and Jerry Lee struggling, drinking and gambling their way through the novel. It’s also an accidental road trip, with the twosome driving their beaten-up car across the cold and unforgiving highways of Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, and all the way back to Nevada.
The Motel Life is a touching yet unflinching book. It’s written economically, with the novel narrated by Frank in short, punchy sentences and a voice that feels authentic, relatable and the antithesis of pretentiousness. It’s raw, refreshing and thoroughly down-to-Earth storytelling.
Frank’s story is heart-wrenching, but he’s never anything less than sympathetic. In fact, most of the novel’s main characters are likeable – yet frustrating at the same time. They’re all full of good intentions, but seemingly never able to overcome their personal issues. Rather than successfully working through their problems, they inevitably seek to escape them.
The most impressive aspect of Vlautin’s writing – phenomenal for a debut novel – is the stark humanness of his characters. They are not heroes. They are not anti-heroes. They aren’t two-dimensional personas cut from cardboard. They feel like real-world, complex, flawed people; down-on-their-luck characters with a small ‘c’ that you could meet in any bar across America. They are extraordinarily unextraordinary, and somehow all the more interesting and compelling for it.
Vlautin’s book, like his band, has built a small, but dedicated and loyal, following. He hasn’t achieved mainstream recognition or commercial success, but critics have rightly championed him as a new great American novelist. The Motel Life – which Vlautin has since followed up with the excellent Northline and Lean on Pete – is a little-read treasure waiting to be enjoyed, and a modern cult classic that deserves to be appreciated.