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.
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
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