WILLY VLAUTIN The Motel Life (Faber And Faber)

Richmond Fontaine’s “The Fitzgerald” was one of my favourite albums of 2005, and it was Willy Vlautin who wrote its relentlessly downbeat parade of sparse, tragic vignettes. It’s hardly a surprise, then, that his debut novel, “The Motel Life”, reads like the lyric sheet from a Richmond Fontaine rock opera that never was, its characters locked by their actions into the inevitable spiral that leads from bad to much, much worse. In fact, there are moments, such as when the narrator encounters a frozen runaway headed for Wyoming, that the plot of the book intersects with songs on “The Fitzgerald”, the whole spilling out into some kind of multimedia synergism that quietly, deftly impresses where it could easily take a tumble.

If you enjoyed – well, perhaps that’s not the correct word – if you appreciated, maybe, “The Fitzgerald”, you’ll feel right at home with “The Motel Life”. It reads like a companion piece to that magnificent album, and if you’re appropriately conditioned to its inevitable parade of misfortune you probably won’t be able to look away.

WILLY VLAUTIN Northline (Faber And Faber)


I’ve tangentially mentioned the literary genius of Richmond Fontaine frontman Willy Vlautin above, and here it is again in the longform of his second novel, published in 2008. His deft character studies and considered, observational narratives have the feel of an elongated Richmond Fontaine song (which is a compliment, just in case there’s any ambiguity), underlined by the way characters from that band’s work reappear here.


Compared with his debut “The Motel Life”, “Northline” is almost an optimistic book. Whereas previously Vlautin’s characters started out in a bad way and watched, almost as helpless hostages to inexorable destiny, as their situations gradually worsened, the people of “Northline” arguably improve their lot slightly through its duration, or at least find themselves trapped in less self-destructive circumstances.


If that doesn’t sound like much of a recommendation, consider that Vlautin writes like Raymond Carver with all the polish sanded off and tells a story like Springsteen applying himself to a screenplay. Even though the book’s central conceit – a character being coached in life lessons by an actor’s apparition – is familiar from Woody Allen’s play and film “Play It Again, Sam”, it doesn’t seem hackneyed or ill-fitting, but sewn seamlessly into the novel’s fabric. An Independent on Sunday quote on the cover calls Vlautin “The Dylan of the dislocated”, which is hardly hyperbole given that the Dylan of the located has yet to write prose fiction as fine as this.


Extra points, too, for the author’s attempt to turn “Northline” into a multimedia experience by the inclusion of a soundtrack CD performed with fellow Richmond Fontaine member Paul Brainard, barely half an hour of ambient alt.country instrumentals of the kind that sometimes function as interludes on the band’s albums.

Richmond Fontaine