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Review: The Motel Life by Willy Vlautin

Chris Leek
Independent Reviewer

We step back in time a little this week and take a look at The Motel Life, the first novel by Willy Vlautin. Some of you may know Vlautin as the front man of the alternative country band Richmond Fontaine.  Like his music Vlautin’s books tell of loners, losers and the disenfranchised.
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Set in Reno, Nevada in the 1990’s Motel Life is the story of two Brothers, Frank and Jerry Lee Flanagan.  Orphaned at an early age the brothers live a marginalized life of dead end jobs, low rent motel rooms and TV diners washed down with bargain bin liquor.

When Jerry Lee accidentally kills a kid in a hit and run they make a bad situation worse and run away. The brothers take flight to Oregon and dream of living a better life with Frank’s damaged ex-girlfriend, Annie James; only to find that no matter how hard you try, you can’t out run yourself. 
There is an echo of Steinbeck’s Mice and Men here and perhaps also a nod towards the bleak existences portrayed by Denis Johnson in Jesus’ Son. The Motel Life is noir in its most literal sense. It provides a dark and heart breaking commentary on alcoholism and suicide as it charts the downward spiral of people forced by circumstance to play out a losing hand.

Willy Vlautin’s prose is sparse and at times almost child like in its directness. But he writes with such compelling honesty that any minor grumbles about his simplistic style or his stifled character development are swept away by the sheer power of his narrative. 
Motel life is not going to be for everyone and it is fair to say there are more accomplished and articulate renderings of America’s third world citizens out there. But for me there is something wonderful about the naivety of Vlautin’s work that I just can’t shake off. This book still haunts me five years after I first read it and in spite of its flaws, I still wish I had written it.
Just as a quick FYI: a movie adaptation of Motel Life has been completed starring Emile Hersch and Stephen Dorff as the Flanagan Brothers, with Dakota Fanning as Annie James.  From what I understand the film is still being shopped around and currently has no set release date.