I did an internet search for “best road trip novels” and The Motel Life, by Willy Vlautin, came up. I’d never heard of it, it sounded interesting – and isn’t that what this Reading Challenge is all about?
I loved this book. It wasn’t what I would have considered a “road trip novel”, not in the same category as Travels With Charley or Blue Highways. But it is about drifters, and they do some traveling. I loved the book, so I’m going to count it as a road trip book.
Frank Flannigan is the narrator of the story. He and his brother, Jerry Lee, have been on their own since they were teenagers. Their father has abandoned them, and their mother is dead. They do odd jobs when they than find them. They live in cheap motels in Reno, Nevada. They don’t have much money, but they have each other, and they have good friends. Frank and Jerry Lee are good people with bad luck.
One night, Jerry Lee is driving home during a snow storm. A young boy on a bicycle darts out in front of him. Jerry Lee is driving less than 20 MPH, he tries to stop, but his car hits the boy, killing him. Jerry Lee knows the accident was the boy’s fault, but he’s been drinking, so he knows the police will blame him. Not knowing what else to do, and overcome with guilt, he puts the boy’s body in the car, flees the scene, and seeks Frank’s advice. Frank wants to protect his brother, so they leave the body outside of St. Mary’s Hospital, and they run away. Frank and Jerry Lee are good people who have made a bad decision.
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 to 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.
Yes, this is a sad story. I knew, the whole time I was reading it, that it was going to end badly for Frank and Jerry Lee. The book is written with compassion and dignity, however. You know they’ve done a bad thing as well as they do, and the book doesn’t glorify their actions, but you get to know them and know that they try to do the right thing. (They steal a dog they see tied up in someone’s back yard, out in the cold and starving, and take care of it. They find a runaway boy sleeping in the snow, and buy him food and a bus ticket to Laramie, Wyoming, where his grandmother lives.)
Willy Vlautin grew up in Reno, and the book includes real locations which he’s, apparently, fond of. He lives in Portland, Oregon, and is the lead singer, and the songwriter, of the band Richmond Fontaine.
- A book about a road trip