Thursday, 15 September 2011

Willy Vlautin - The Motel Life

More Stoytelling

I've just finished reading Vlautin's debut novel The Motel Life having been totally wrapped up in its painful and compassionate story for the last few days. I think this is a stronger book than his second Northline which I also reviewed recently, but that is neither here nor there; they are both excellent. This too concerns itself with damage and repair. It is a story about two brothers Frank and Jerry Lee and how their love and support for one another holds up in the wake of a tragic accident. It seems the world of Vlautin's stories and musical narratives are primarily about how life tests us all, and in The Motel Life, Frank in particular is tested throughout by circumstance as well as the prevalent cold and snow of the winter.

Ordinary people, a strong sense of place, and realistic dialogue provide the basis for Vlautin's storytelling expertise. As with Northline where the occasional appearance of Paul Newman provides a separate narrative thread, in this story Frank is a consummate storyteller, and he is normally regaling his brother Jerry Lee with tall tales to get both of them through and past difficult moments. This escapism is always seen for what it is and enjoyed purely in the moment rather than as some kind of permanent palliative for a tough life: another layer in the convincing and candid realism.

I was reading this novel yesterday in a waiting room where another guy, Paul, turned up and recognised it was Vlautin and we spoke a little about his writing and music. What are the chances of someone else being so familiar with his work? Paul certainly knew a lot more than me about Vlautin's music with Richmond Fontaine and he too has his ticket to see them playing locally. He expressed his doubts about their latest The High Country which I fully understand [implied in my recent review and certainly reflected in others out there] and he reminded me of Post To Wire as a better example of Richmond Fontaine's music.

Richmond Fontaine - Post To Wire

I'm listening to this now as I write. The music is certainly more to the fore than the storytelling of The High Country, its country/americana tinges dominating. I'm not going to work through all the tracks [there are 16]. Three of these are postcards, spoken here by a persona called Walter who sends them back to his friend Pete to apologise for running out on the rent, pawning your TV and your folk's wedding rings and explain things about his troubled and damaged life. Track fourteen is fascinating as it is titled Allison Johnson, the female protagonist of Northline, and it is a song sung to her by a hopeful lover/partner and for those of us who know her so well we know this optimism is either a lie or simply naive. Opener The Longer You Wait is typical in its focus on storytelling, but the music does have parity of purpose on this album, here the distant pedal steel riding in and passing through the song like a slow train. Eleventh track Polaroid gives a powerful flavour of the literate narratives:

Everyone inside was half ruined and almost gone
Outside in the frozen parking lot
He held her in his arms
As he led her inside her glasses fogged from the cold and
They both stood there dressed in their best clothes
"Has anyone here seen my dad" the girl called
"Cause he hasn't been to work and I don't know
Where he lives anymore"

Not everyone lives their life alone
Not everyone gives up
Or is beaten or robbed or always stoned
Not everyone

The bartender bought them rounds

And made a toast and
With a Polaroid he took their picture and hung it
Up on the bar mirror all alone
And for a little while it was like
The whole world was alright like
No one was beaten or forsaken or had given up
When they'd just seen light 

Title track Post To Wire sums up the Vlautin pragmatism and preoccupation because I don't think it is as problematic as a philosophy: life is as it is and with any luck it will work out if we just accept it as it is

I don't care anymore who was right
And who was wrong and who was left and who was leaving
I'll overlook everything if you can overlook everything
I know you're worn out but you know I'm worn out too


  1. I have just ordered "Northline" on Amazon as I thought I'd give it a try.

  2. You will like it. I obviously recommend 'The Motel Life' too and I am starting his latest 'Lean on Pete' tomorrow. Rightly or wrongly, all cheap on Amazon.

  3. Polaroid is a lovely song. Unusually warm. Favourite RF album is Lost Son. Captures everything I love about the band. The punk beginnings, the great and energetic playing, and ofcourse Vlautin's great story telling and voice.

    I'd love to hear them play Fifteen Year Old Kid In Nogales, Mexico. Or Cascades or A Girl In A House In Felony Flats from same album. (The latter being an episode of CSI without makeup, hairdos or happy ending.) All sad, depressing and beautiful songs - just my cuppa tea ;O) But with the Damnations singer on board for this tour I think the setlist will stop at Post to Wire. It'll be great though. I'll keep an eye out for you. Cheers. Paul

    Fifteen Year Old Kid In Nogales

    Back then his hair came down past his nose
    Barely washed and never combed
    Dressed in a T-shirt that read Conklin Bail Bonds
    He stole from his mothers purse $300
    And from her new boyfriend $200 more
    He sold all his records and his shotgun
    And took a bus to Nogales, Mexico
    He was 15 years old

    For weeks he walked the streets of border Mexico
    He bought a leather belt and a cowboy hat
    He bought a ring with a horse on it even though
    The only horses he'd ever seen were in
    A parking lot or on TV
    He met an old American lady there who said
    She was scared to drive her car, and would pay him
    If he drove her to the Sea Of Cortez
    SO they drove at night to escape the heat
    But he was young and he fell asleep
    When he woke he had rolled her car and she lay dead
    So he grabbed his cowboy hat, and he grabbed her purse
    And he walked towards the sea, because he'd never seen
    Any amount of water worth mentioning or of importance to anyone

  4. off topic but you may find this interesting


  5. Good of you to stop by Paul. 'Lost Son' is the next one I'll definitely check out then - I've got some catching up on RF! Great storylyric you've posted - the wonderful indifference of the boy's response at the end!

    I'll check out the link too. Yes, might see you at the gig. Take care.