Book Review: The Motel Life

The snow was coming down in sloppy flakes and starting to pile up on the cars and the street. My feet were already wet and I was wishing I’d worn a hat. Crossing Stark, I passed a dog that couldn’t figure out where to piss because his usual places were covered up. I felt sorry for him, so I kicked the snow off the parking strip until a patch of grass was showing.

When I walked past the library out on 39th, I decided to go inside to get warm and maybe use one of their computers to look for a car. I still had close to $500 left from a lucky streak playing pool at the Triple Nickel, and I had the feeling that I’d want to be getting out of town soon. I didn't know why. It was just a feeling I had.

I sat down at the table where they stack all the tax forms and picked up a copy of “The Motel Life” that someone had left there. The pages were stained on the edges like someone had spilled coffee on it, and the front cover was torn. Inside, I found a photograph of an old man standing in front of a house with a Camaro parked in the yard. I guess someone had used it as a bookmark and forgot it when they returned the book. I put the picture in my pocket, thinking I could return it if I was ever walking down a street and recognized the house, though I was pretty sure that the old man in the picture was already dead.

A skinny kid with greasy hair saw me looking at the book and said, “Willy Vlautin’s a pretty good writer. I heard that book was nominated for an Oregon Book Award in 2007. He’s got a band called Richmond Fontaine that I once heard at the White Eagle. You should totally check that book out, even though it’s kinda grim.”

I asked him what was so sad about it and he said, “It’s about two brothers in Reno and the bad things that happen to them and how their lives are kind of shitty, but at least they have one another. The one brother, Jerry Lee, kills a kid in a hit and run accident and feels really bad about it. Plus he has only one leg. The other brother, Frank – he’s the one narrating--takes care of things, drinks a lot of beer and makes up stories to get his brother’s mind off their troubles.”

I opened the book and the first paragraph I read pretty much summed things up:

Bad luck. It falls on people every day. It’s one of the only certain truths. It’s always on deck, it’s always just waiting. The worst thing, the thing that scares me the most is that you never know who or when it’s going to hit. But I knew then, that morning, when I saw the kid’s frozen arms in the back of the car that bad luck had found my brother and me. And us, we took the bad luck and strapped it around our feet like concrete. We did the worst imaginable thing you could do. We ran away. We just got in his beat-up 1974 Dodge Fury and left.
I told the kid, “Thanks. Maybe I will read it.”

I got tired of waiting for the computer so I checked out the book and went back out into the cold. The snow was coming down even harder and a bus was sideways in the intersection even though it had chains on. On my way home, I bought a 12-pack of beer, a can of soup and a bottle of cough syrup.

As I left the store, a craggy guy selling Street Roots out front saw the book and yelled, “I heard that Guillermo Arriaga bought the movie rights to that book.”

“Who’s that?” I asked.

“He’s the guy who wrote the screenplay for 21 Grams and Babel.”

“Is Babel the one with Charlize Theron and Brad Pitt?” I asked.

“Yeah, did you see it?”

“No, but I wanted to. I think I got drunk that night instead.”

I gave him a twenty dollar bill for a copy of the paper. He tried to give it back, thinking I’d made a mistake, but I told him to keep it and maybe go see a movie and get some popcorn.

When I got to the place I was staying, the regular day clerk, Earl, was at the front desk. Earl’s one of those guys that always has something to say. I think he's lonely since his wife died last year. He’s alright, and doesn’t hassle me when the rent is a few days late or because I keep a hot plate in my room.

“What’s that you’re reading, Champ?” he asked.

I told him, and he said, “Yeah, I read that one and liked it. Reminded me a lot of Raymond Carver. You ever read any Carver?”

“I have, but not lately. I remember seeing that Altman movie. Was it Short Cuts? And I kinda like his poems. It’s too bad that he died.” I didn’t know what else to say.

Earl was getting excited the way he does when he’s talking about books. “You know who else Vlautin reminds me of? Denis Johnson and that book 'Jesus' Son.' Man, that guy can write a sad sack story like nobody else, except Bukowski. Me, I like Charlie B. more than any of them other guys, though he seems like he was more of a mean drunk.”

Earl’s shift was over and he was turning off the office lights while we talked. “I gotta get myself home before this snow gets any worse and shuts down Highway 30. Hey, did you know that Willy Vlautin guy lives out in Scappoose close to my place?”

“I didn’t know that Earl. Do you need help putting chains on or anything?” I asked.

“Nah. I drove the Cherokee this morning and the tires ain’t too bad. Maybe you can just give me a push to get me going.”

I did, though I don’t think he needed my help. I watched him fishtail down Burnside headed toward the river, then went to my room up on the second floor. When I got there, I turned the box heater as high as it would go, opened a beer and got into bed. I left the television on to cover up the sound of the couple arguing in the room next door. I'm used to reading with all kinds of noises going on. My favorite place to read is the Vern on Belmont, especially when the jukebox is playing and old guys are arguing and laughing with each other. There aren’t as many old guys there as there used to be.

A few hours later, I drank the last beer and realized that I was pretty drunk and had to take a leak. I’d finished the whole book though. The kid at the library was right about it being real sad. A tragedy, no doubt about it. But it also ended with enough hope that you didn’t want to just go jump off the Marquam Bridge right away.

Most of the characters in the book seem like your high school classmates that never graduated and have problems keeping a job or staying sober. But I could see that they were good people trying to do the right thing. They pretty much wanted what anybody wants out of life. Someone to love. They get dealt some bad breaks over and over again, but they’re also given tender mercies and give back small acts of kindness. Like the kid at the library and how he told me Willy Vlautin is a good writer. He didn’t have to bother telling a stranger that, but it was a nice thing to do.

I was still feeling sorry for the two brothers after reading the book, so I drank the bottle of cough syrup and fell asleep. When I woke up the next morning, my stomach hurt real bad and I couldn’t get my eyes to focus right. I didn’t do any more reading that day. Instead I went to the library and wrote this post. I also found a video on YouTube with Willy Vlautin and his band singing a song that reminds me of "The Motel Life."

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