In November of 1953, in Room 401 of the Sheraton Hotel on Boston’s Bay State Road, Eugene O’Neill opened his eyes, glumly took a look around and grumbled his final words: “I knew it! Born in a hotel room and died in a hotel room.”
One might think that a writer would savor this particular bit of poetic circularity, but O’Neill — who had indeed entered this world 65 years earlier via the Barrett House Hotel in what’s now Times Square — was none too pleased by the coincidence. At various times in our lives, a hotel room can be a site of much-needed respite, a place for conducting business, a sybaritic den of iniquity or a private detox center. But one thing it can never be, by definition, is home.
For his latest novel, Rick Moody, who previously mined modern sexual and spiritual ambivalence in works like “The Ice Storm” and “Purple America,” explores our ambivalent relationship with those spaces we occupy when we think we’ve been released from the responsibility of being ourselves. “Hotels of North America” is all about the way we pine for the idea of “home” that we’ve worked so hard to destroy. It’s formally daring, often very funny and surprisingly moving. It should earn Moody new fans from a millennial cohort that was still in diapers back when he was basking in his early critical acclaim. It should also help him win back those who felt his last two novels (“The Diviners,” “The Four Fingers of Death”) were sprawling, messy misfires.
Part of what makes “Hotels” as breezy as it is rewarding is its structure, which in our era of digital discourse manages to feel both unorthodox and perfectly familiar. The story unfolds as a series of online reviews for the Web site RateYourLodging.com , all of which have been submitted by one Reginald Edward Morse, a reviewer of such entertaining prolixity and discursive majesty that the adjective “Nabokovian” immediately comes to mind. (It will come to mind more than once throughout the novel.) Morse’s critical postings, which cover all manner of lodgings from the super-luxurious to the decidedly downmarket, jettison the conventions of online ratings to include highly intimate personal details, i.e., what he was doing or thinking in all of those different beds on all of those different nights.
This is not the smiling and carefree life of the hotel guest as depicted in travel brochures. “A charming little hotel in a neighborhood right in the center of the old city,” begins one of Morse’s reviews, “within easy walking distance of many well-known tourist destinations, the Hotel Francesco also happens to be the hotel where my child was conceived with the woman who used to be my wife.” Morse’s dispatches, many of which pertain to hotel stays that took place years in the past, collectively form a kind of fossil record chronicling the evolution of one middle-aged man’s familial despair. The timeline seems to go something like this: marriage, slow disenchantment, infidelity, indifference, hopelessness, alcoholism, divorce, custodial weekends, deep regret and profound loneliness.
But just as you can never be 100 percent certain that the scathing Yelp review of your favorite restaurant represents the legitimate grievances of a disappointed patron or the calculated rantings of an unreliable narrator, neither should you ever feel 100 percent certain that you know exactly what’s going on in “Hotels of North America.” Even some of Morse’s most fervent followers on RateYourLodging.com have their doubts that the Reginald Edward Morse they’ve been reading — and sometimes trolling — is who he says he is.
That Moody has effectively christened his main character “R.E. Morse” ought to be the first big clue that something’s up. A second clue, though, is to be found in the way that “Hotels” subtly but unquestionably evokes another great novel narrated by a troubled soul who finds himself cooped up in a cheap motel: Vladimir Nabokov’s “Pale Fire.” In that 1962 work, contemporary metafiction’s Rosetta Stone, Nabokov baked exegesis right into the narrative, sandwiching the 999-line poem that serves as the novel’s core between a revealing foreword and an even more revealing commentary by a self-styled literary critic.
Here, Morse’s reviews are bracketed by an amuse-bouche of a preface — perfect in its boosterish banality — by the (fictional) director of the North American Society of Hoteliers and Innkeepers, and a haunting afterword by none other than the acclaimed novelist Rick Moody. Moody confesses to having fallen under Morse’s spell, and much of his afterword relays the details of his obsessive quest to locate the real Reginald Morse after the reviewer’s final and mysterious posting for RateYourLodging.com. “It is true, isn’t it,” Moody-as-Moody writes, “that the inner mechanics of even our closest acquaintances are a mystery to us? It is true that our suppositions about character can be reversed in a moment. There are large parts of all of us that lie hidden, both unmapped and unpredictable.”
Home is where the unhidden, well-mapped, predictable parts of us are on full display. By contrast, as Morse puts it, a hotel stay represents “the great romance of life, the losing of home temporarily.” You book a room looking to escape something: your cluttered bedroom, the office, a humdrum life, thoughts of what might have been. But as long as you’re living inside your own skin, and inside your own head, you’re never far from home — even at the fanciest hotels. You can check in any time you like, but you can never leave.
Jeff Turrentine, a columnist for OnEarth magazine, is a frequent Book World reviewer.
By Rick Moody
Little, Brown. 198 pp. $25