The novel The Motel Life is being passed around among Reno readers hand-to-hand with fervent testimonials and solemn assurances of its worth. That is how it came to me, and that is probably how I will pass it along. The Motel Life has racked up a lot of praise since its release, but that’s not really the point when it comes to a homegrown masterpiece like this. With a satisfyingly difficult to bear narrative realism, the book matters because it is good—really good. It also might be the most honest piece of literature ever written about our city.
I sat reading with dry, but red-rimmed eyes, wrapped in a bundle in the corner of my couch, feeling both irritable and spellbound as I turned the pages.
The tale goes something like this: Two orphaned brothers, Frank and Jerry Lee Flannigan, drop out of high school, take menial jobs and spend short stints living at many of downtown Reno’s less-than-savory motels. Jerry, the elder of the two siblings, relies on Frank for emotional support after partially losing a limb while hopping a train headed for San Francisco, following the death of the pair’s only extant parent. Frank narrates on behalf of the two. It is a classic father-is-gone, mother-is-dead type of story, but with too much heart to write it off as such.
The story’s major catalyst involves a late night hit-and-run accident in the midst of winter and a corpse abandoned at the entrance to Saint Mary’s Hospital. A boy on a bicycle is suddenly dead. The brothers escape temporarily, but the truth swiftly lassos them back home to face the drab repercussions of culpability. Frank and Jerry Lee subtly illuminate the lesser-traveled streets of Reno. Born of parents who barely made ends meet, the brothers carry that sad family tradition with them into adulthood.
The book, written by native Renoite and Richmond Fontaine guitarist and lead singer Willy Vlautin, is at once a classic American Western tragedy and a quintessentially redemptive tale of caution against allowing life’s misfortunes to pass by uncontested.
The Motel Life might still be a true Reno novel without references to The Halfway Club, The El Cortez, The Fireside, The Down Towner, The Mizpah, or the Fitz. But the book does give those sometimes dubious places their due. Each chapter heading features a pen and ink drawing of an upcoming scene, usually featuring a familiar dive or small casino.
By the time the novel’s coup de grace arrives, the reader is prepared. There is an important moment in the book, when Frank sits by himself in a dollar movie house, watching a film he already knows the ending to and feeling depressed. “… When it got real bad for the last time, and the guy in the movie was ready to die, I finished my last beer, put on my coat and hat, and left.”
This book might make the reader feel a little like that—like getting up and walking out on the story when it gets real bad for the last time. But don’t do it. Stick around and see how it ends.