Western Motel

Jones is The Times' assistant Book Review editor.

If you're driving from Los Angeles to Albuquerque, you hit Gallup on the second day in time for lunch. You pull off the Interstate, swing across a wide intersection and into a truck stop next to a farmacia , dreaming of a bowl of New Mexico red and sopapaillas dripping honey. It's a shock stepping out from the recyled chill of the air-conditioned car into the broiling, smogless air. What's most startling of all is the silence. Inside the restaurant, there are plump, oxblood Naugahyde booths. A cheerful Navajo family is sitting in the sunny corner booth. Almost everyone is eating Anglo-style food--chicken-fried steak, hamburgers; the kids are eating spaghetti. Over at the counter you notice the exception, a heavyset Mexican man, no longer young, hunched over a bowl of thick reddish-brown chili, spooning slowly. He sits alone, in a cowboy hat and Levi's, indifferent to his fiery lunch; he appears shell-shocked, in a daze.

And so do most of the characters in Polly Gross' first novel, "Western Motel," a story that takes place in sizzling, silent Gallup. There are Tracy and Eddie, Carl, Ronnie, Suzanne, Weasel. They are weary, inarticulate, bored, desperate, short-sighted to the point where you want to scream at them, and sometimes so stupid it hurts. Tracy and her penniless crowd are the dusty, desert town version of Brett Easton Ellis' super-cool, unfeeling players of "Less Than Zero." Perhaps because fewer options are open to them than Ellis' rich L.A. Westsiders, they might be given one point above zero. But not a whole lot more.

You can tell Polly Gross has been to Gallup, perhaps en route from her native Chicago to Irvine, where she earned an MFI in the UCI writers' program. At least, she's gotten off the highway there to pump gas and pick up a map of the town. Gross conveys Gallup in a few vivid snapshots: She's seen the fat man sitting alone at the counter in the luncheonette; a dark-eyed child standing on a run-down street, holding a stick, not a toy.

She recognizes things, she records them. At moments, her narrative seems awkwardly poised for poetic flight. However, she hasn't quite got the hang of gracefully integrating the touching and the earthy.

Gross' view of Gallup resembles that of any traveler moving from one big city to another: How do people live in a dried-up old dump like this, with its crumbly motels, trading posts full of Indian jewelry that yuppies wouldn't be caught dead in, locals who have never seen an ocean? It's a sliver of a vision, but that doesn't invalidate it. There must be some people in Gallup who get up in the morning and know what they are going to do that day and why they are where they are. But they have no place in "Western Motel," where escape takes the form of a suicide pact just as readily as it might the form of hitching a ride on a rig headed east or west.

Tracy and her boyfriend Eddie are 19, school drop-outs who want a way out. He is an ex-con; she dreams about being an artist, doesn't paint or draw, though, and works in the office of the crummy Western Motel. All they have is "the plan"--a suicide pact. They both anticipate dying as if waiting to go on a cheap weekend to Reno. Eddie packs his favorite material possessions, preparing for the next world, Egyptian-style. Tracy doesn't really believe in the permanence of death; she can only imagine it with a sort of TV reality, a momentary, theatrical thing. She thinks about Romeo and Juliet and cooking a "Last Supper":

"Tracy couldn't cook. She lived on hot dogs and Hostess Ho-Hos, on Fritos, burritos, ice cream sandwiches, canned hash. For a special meal, she favored the chopped sirloin beef TV dinner. Then there were the tenderloin sandwiches from Mamie's. . . . No more food, she thought. No more good music or movies. The room looked nice, clean and inviting. They would lie upon that bed, she could picture it, his stilled face and slight smile, her hair cascading over the pillow like Juliet's. Sweet dreams." (Later she wonders if maybe Eddie is wrong and there might not be any sweet dreams.) By trying to give us this earthy portrait of a red-blooded but directionless teen-ager, Polly Gross undermines her own sense of urgency. Are we talking about suicide or sandwiches?

Eddie and Tracy speak one language and think another, as most of us do, but in this case, the personalities conveyed are so disparate, it is as though we are talking about Eddie and Tracy--and Ted and Alice. Tracy blurts out at one point: "If Eddie makes some money we're going to leave town. It's still on." At another moment: "From where she stood, Tracy glimpsed the woman in the passenger's seat and the infant on her lap. The baby's hand was curled into a tiny fist which he shook at passers-by as if imitating an angry grown man. Angry, he was so angry. He was captive and furious." Tracy's not a stupid kid, but she can't even recognize her own anger, let alone the metaphorical rage of an infant.

Carrying on a conversation with a woman who doesn't speak English, Eddie says: "I think I talk best with my music. That's why it matters so much. A man needs an instrument. . . . I mean, I have this guitar. Right now it's in the shop, but any day now I'm going to get it back," Meanwhile, he thinks: "Something about the way she tipped her head slightly reminded him of Tracy, though of course this girl was much more beautiful. When he finally caught her eye, he felt as though he won something; it was as if she had given him, with her pleased expression, the key to a hidden kingdom. I am the Lord and Master . . . of these lands. The majestic man continued to survey his property. The green-clad woman leaned, falsely anxious, against the balcony railing. And when I die . . . I will have his things. Fields, servants, women. I will step onto the balcony, put my arms around her, and think: Mine, all mine." It's a vision that doesn't make much sense; why is Eddie suddenly thinking of that most romantic of items, a balcony? This is a guy who has sex with his girlfriend after she's passed out from drinking.

Carl, Tracy's father, remains a ghost of a character, never fully realized. He is a stand-up comic whose material is too worn for the shabbiest of Las Vegas lounge shows, and what he's doing in Gallup beats me. You never sense what Tracy feels about her father, whose having left home is supposed to have left a void in her life the size of the Rio Grande gorge.

"Western Motel" is a taciturn tale, too obviously controlled. Gross, stingy with her humor, keeps her fictional desperadoes on a tight rein, never letting their desires break into the unrehearsed. So there are no surprises here. Gross has some elegance in her use of language, but her storytelling is as ineffective as a yarn told by a tight-lipped, tongue-tied cowpoke at a barn dance. Ever hear the one about the Western Motel, ma'am?

Think twice before checking in.

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