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All the way from Reno
Motels, a hit and run accident and a whole lot of depressed drinking. Welcome to the downbeat demi-monde of debutante novelist Willy Vlautin.
Peter Murphy, 17 May 2006
Reno, Nevada, a place where, during the Depression era, state laws prohibiting gambling and prostitution were lifted in order to generate revenue, and divorce restrictions were relaxed to six weeks’ residency with the intention of enticing rich married folk looking for a quick get-out.
The result was a sort of proto Las Vegas; over the next couple of decades motels sprang up like mushrooms within a hundred mile radius of downtown precincts. But by the 1970s the corporations had moved in, expanding the casinos and building their own hotels for the high rollers and tourists, forcing the mom-and-pop motels to rent out as weeklies, their new clientele being mainly gamblers, rakes, drifters and all manner of people hanging on by their fingernails.
This is the backdrop to Willy Vlautin’s first novel The Motel Life, and if the title unintentionally echoes Sam Shepard’s Motel Chronicles, it’s a fair indication of the terrain. Vlautin – frontman and songwriter with well respected roots-rock outfit Richmond Fontaine – conjures roominghouse madrigals neon lit by swinging traffic lights and Bud signs, the kind of terrain previously mapped by Bukowski, Fante, Denis Johnson and Nelson Algren, moved to a hostile Fargo-like climate.
“When I lived in Reno you’d see all these weird guys living in those motels,” says Vlautin, a solid and friendly 38-year-old. “One of my best friends growing up, when he was 19 he would live that life, he just kind of dropped out of society, wouldn’t tell you where he was staying, moved once a week. Granted, he was a drug dealer, but more than that I think he just like to hide out and be his own man. I used to hang out with him in these hotels, so a lot of the idea for the book was from him.”
Rock ‘n’ rollers brought up in hicksville generally can’t wait to blow out of town ‘Born To Run’ style; writers tend to stay put or eventually return to old stomping grounds in order to do justice to the voices of the people they grew up around. Although he now resides in the rather more writer-friendly city of Portland, Oregon, Vlautin still belongs to the latter camp.