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A fictional wake-up call? Or bedside scripture?

FICTION

Hotels of North America

By Rick Moody

Little, Brown

198 pages, $25

By Ed Taylor

“Hotels of North America” is an exercise in deduction, a subtle, narrative sortie in which the standard of narrative art, character, is created via a trail of implicit evidence – in this case, a set of 37 online hotel reviews by the most popular freelance reviewer on “RateYourLodging.com.” Because of this unconventional (in the mainstream) structure, Rick Moody’s new novel is attracting attention: It is an intriguing, mercurial take on love, loneliness, connection, redemption, and online life, among other things.

Moody is a major dude in contemporary literature and “Hotels” is his first novel in five years. However, this latest addition to his oeuvre is more molecular gastronomy than rib-sticking classic cuisine, to cook up yet another clumsy metaphor, and its pleasures might leave you appreciative, but still hungry. That of course puts us into the most ephemeral and subjective arena of all (where arguably all reviews duke it out), that of personal taste.

The book is framed as a manuscript by “Reginald Morse,” the previously mentioned popular reviewer, which has been given an “Afterword” by “Rick Moody.” Morse, it turns out both from his (or her?) actual writing, is an enigma, and in the meta-narrative about the narrative, an enigma to his publisher also – and to “Moody,” when asked to add an appreciation to the manuscript.

One hint at one of the text’s themes is given by the bulleted list of reviews appearing on the book’s endpapers, with reviews color coded by the following designations: “Morse Alone,” “Morse with ex-wife,” “Morse with unnamed language arts instructor,” and “Morse with woman known as K.” It is Morse alone versus Morse not alone that is one thread woven through all the “reviews” – loneliness versus connection, and love.

“Reviews” is actually a misnomer – the pieces frequently skip the actual act of reviewing and often say little about the places being reviewed, which range from harrowing drug-and-prostitution SROs to canonical institutions such as the Plaza Hotel to chain motels to a bed-and-breakfast to an IKEA parking lot and even several non-North American establishments including an Italian tour-destination “farm.” Dates of hotel visits range from the early 1970s to 2014.

Morse’s increasingly popular reviews are really snapshots of his life at various stages, as he reveals glimpses of himself, or a version of himself, via his responses to cities and neighborhoods; his reasons for being in these places and what happens while he’s there; and his interactions with his traveling companion when there is one.

The novel is subtitled “The Collective Writings of Reginald Edward Morse,” and features a preface by “Greenway Davies, Director, North American Society of Hoteliers and Innkeepers.” According to Davies, Morse’s collected reviews represent “a heartwarming, funny-bone tickling volume about the peaks and troughs of itinerant life. It’s about rebirth and rehabilitation. (Or so my staff tells me; I haven’t had time to read the whole series yet! Which means I need a vacation!).”

The book is “impulsively” rather than chronologically composed, “as if it were a rack of picture postcards at a roadside attraction overturned by a truculent child and reorganized haphazardly according to the admonishments of some furious dad.” Why? “Because this is how the nomadic life is organized? Haphazardly according to the pressures of a grueling economy?”

Morse is indeed seemingly tossed on the waves of contemporary American socioeconomics, after a prematurely ended career “in the financial industry” downshifting into a scuffling existence as a “motivational speaker” and life coach, someone who is periodically reduced to sleeping in his car.

His stays usually revolve around feckless, sometimes comic, sometimes slightly harrowing, and always ultimately sobering attempts to either get a client, keep one, or complete a job, often accompanied by K, his companion in most of his stays.

Morse is smart, self-destructive, funny but not overly so – the comic build-ups that scaffold punchlines often evoke more of the comedian’s nightmare – someone responding to a joke by saying “that’s funny,” rather than laughing – than LOL responses: but as humor is so subjective this is not a serious quibble. The comic touch is certainly there, as is pathos, pain, hard-won learning, and even in a dim, quiet, exhausted but resilient way, redemption.

The sections move us closer and closer to the heart of the heart of Reginald Morse, and behind his reviews as through a scrim we see everyone who’s ever been forced to leave “home” and try to re-create it, or who’s ever struggled to figure out how to keep love alive.

One of the eternal themes – if not the eternal theme – in narrative art is: attachment and loss. Two emblematic sections, providing maybe the most direct touch points connecting to that, are near the end. One is an elegy to “the child,” the narrator’s daughter who does not live with him. “I miss the child, I miss the child, every day I miss the child” begins a single, almost two-page-long sentence mimicking the breathless ache of a loss that never goes away and has nothing to do with death.

The other section is an elegy to “home.” “What is it we want from hotel life? We want the closest thing we can get to home. We want a reminder that home exists.” What follows this, in contrast to the “child” soliloquy, is a series of declarative sentences about what “home” is.

Each of these, parenthood and home, represents an experience transcending time and culture, and one representing perhaps (arguably) more direct connections to the core of being human than even love. Here resides some of the subtle reach of this novel.

The final series of reviews becomes increasingly explicitly about Morse rather than about where he is, and bring things to a moody (see what I did there?) but resonant and sneakily rich finish.

This slender book might make a good replacement for those Gideon Bibles in hotel room drawers – an amenity to enrich the experience of being a nomad.

Better than pillow mints – just a suggestion, to the hotels of North America.

Ed Taylor is a Buffalo area English professor, freelance critic and author.