One drawback of American journalism is that newspapers and magazines don’t have hotel critics. Into this cultural void steps Reginald Edward Morse, the hero of Rick Moody’s new novel, “Hotels of North America.”
Reginald — no one seems to call him Reggie — is a top reviewer on RateYourLodging.com. Little gets past his bloodshot eyes. At the Viking Motel in Eugene, Ore., for example, he slumps to the floor in a moment of loneliness and inebriation and can’t help noticing the “dust, blood, seminal fluid, Ritz Crackers, and insect parts” mulched into the carpet. It’s the kind of grainy detail for which readers prize his posts.
This is Moody’s best novel in many years. It’s a little book, a bagatelle, but it’s a little book of irony and wit and heartbreak. It is insightful on topics like the joy of stockpiling hotel hair-care products while also asking the big questions, such as, “Which man among us is not, most of the time, possessed of the desire to curl himself into a fetal ball?”
Moody is best known for “The Ice Storm” (1994), his very good novel (it became a very good movie) about the crack up of two suburban Connecticut families over a Thanksgiving weekend in 1973. It entered the phrase “key party” into the popular lexicon of after-dinner entertainment nightmares.
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Since “The Ice Storm” Moody has written four novels, including “Purple America” (1997), “The Diviners” (2005) and “The Four Fingers of Death” (2010). Each had sustained flashes of mental lightning. Each also made the sound of a writer trying too hard to impress. In “Hotels of North America” he eases back on the throttle, and his engine begins to purr.
This novel is related as a series of hotel reviews. Reginald, who is in his 50s, moves around the country, and sometimes internationally, for his work as a midrate motivational speaker. Sometimes he recounts stays in rather fancy places, like the Groucho Club in London.
More often he’s reduced to crashing in hotels with bulletproof glass in the lobby. One review is about sleeping in his car in an Ikea parking lot in New Haven, Conn.
Reginald has hit hard times. He’s divorced. He has a daughter he rarely sees. His credit cards are frequently declined. This novel visits a series of indignities upon him: subpoenas, sleep apnea, car crashes, electronic keys that fail to work, the sounds of a prostitute at work in the next room over.
He and his girlfriend haven’t abandoned their Robin Leach dreams of infinity pools and Champagne, however. They are determined scammers and, in Moody’s telling, funny ones.
“Many are the cons that are available to the motel guest who wishes to arrive at a more reasonable price for a room,” Reginald declares, “and over the years we have tried variations on the Melon Drop, the Jamaican Switch, the Sex-Toy Scam, etc., each refitted for the specific hotel or motel environment.”
At its heart, “Hotels of North America” is a close examination of the middle-aged American male in sexual, emotional and financial free fall. Reginald stifles his sobs in hotel breakfast nooks. He is unreligious yet finds himself feeling “myocardially close to God.” Cialis commercials are, to him, absurdly moving.
He speaks of himself, while in an online sex chat room, of course, as “just another guy sweating out droplets of desperation and heartache in the 21st century.” He feels hideous; he feels like he’s melting. He tells us he has “more body hair than a bonobo.”
This novel’s elastic format – short hotel reviews – gives Moody a lot of room to improvise and play, and play he does. He is terrific on the “assisted living” décor at some hotels, the mustards and browns and soul-destroying drapery. He is even better on the joints that seem to attract disgraced politicians and “collectors of serial-killer memorabilia.”
Reginald is a strangely noble screw-up. He reminded me a bit of Henry, the reeling antihero in the poet John Berryman’s “Dream Songs.” We can say about Reginald what Berryman said of his man:
Henry got around. I can’t say it improved him but unquestionably it gave him some to think about.