Opening like an early Tom Waits barstool-tale, The Motel Life tells the story of two brothers, Frank and Jerry Lee. Taking to the road in an attempt to escape the hit and run accident caused by Jerry Lee, the novel goes back to tell the story of their unhappy lives. With intense feeling and compassion, Vlautin explores the frustrations and failed dreams of the two brothers – one a natural storyteller, the other an artist – and renders perfectly the sense of entrapment they feel. Will the kid’s death shock them out of their torpor or send them ever deeper into trouble? Can Annie James, a girl from their past, offer them any sort of redemption, however slim?
Interspersed with drawings that come to form an integral part of the narrative, The Motel Life is a poetic, moving, beautifully naive and tragic fictional debut. Alongside such seminal works as Annie Proulx’s Postcards, Raymond Carver’s What we talk about when we talk about love and Denis Johnson’s Jesus’s Son, it should come to be seen as a classic of downbeat American prose.