All hotels are not created equal. The gap between a good place to spend a night and a bad one is huge. If you’re rich, you can spend $1,000 on a room that comes with a name and not a number. If you’re not, you can drop a couple of 20s on a rent-by-the-hour motel off a highway access road. The only things such establishments have in common is that you’ll have trouble getting your keycard to function, and you’ll be overcharged for Internet access.
This is where hotel review sites come in, but you can’t trust everything you read. Particularly if the reviewer is Reginald Edward Morse, the querulous narrator of Rick Moody’s frustratingly uneven novel, “Hotels of North America.” Save for a preface and afterword, the whole book is told through Morse’s reviews of hotels on the fictional website RateYourLodging.com.
Morse is a difficult man to please. He can find fault with just about everything, from the quality of complimentary cookies to the lack of available grits. But of course, there’s more going on than one man’s opinions about bathroom accessories and mattresses — Morse uses his reviews to tell something like the story of his life.
And it’s not a happy story. Morse is a former investment banker turned motivational speaker, and his addictions to alcohol and gambling frequently leave him broke. He’s often homeless and resorts to deception to afford a place to sleep. “Many are the cons that are available to the motel guest who wishes to arrive at a more reasonable price for a room,” he confesses, before detailing one involving food poisoning.
His partner in crime is K., his girlfriend, and maybe the only good thing in his life. Still, she’s not always around, and he endures some of the worse lodgings by himself, among them a hotel in Des Moines “where there are just enough people to allow for a major drug subculture, some prostitution, some hog farms, feed corn, and libertarianism.”
Even when K. is around, it’s not always enough to salvage the hotel experience. Morse has nothing but contempt for a Danish inn (the title of the novel is not wholly accurate) with tiny rooms and major water leaks: “You were never going to get back the night you spent in the Cabinn. You were never going to get it back.”
Situations like those represent Moody at his best — wistful, by turns funny and crushingly sad. Unfortunately, there are not enough of them, which means that too many of Morse’s reviews read like shaggy dog stories that never come together.
For every beautiful moment, there are two throwaway ones, often involving low humor — Morse brags about getting revenge on an unpleasant hotel employee by giving him diarrhea-inducing candy. Then, there’s a needless account of a sexual encounter with a menstruating woman. It’s not that such moments are offensive; it’s that they’re jarringly out of place.
Characters don’t have to be likable for a book to be good, but it generally helps if the reader cares about them. And it’s hard to care about Reginald Morse.
That’s not to say he doesn’t have his moments. In one of the novel’s most powerful sections, he laments his estrangement from his daughter: “I miss the child, I miss the child, every day I miss the child,” he writes, before launching into a gorgeous litany of why. It’s not just some of the best writing in the book, it’s some of the best writing of Moody’s career.
As beautiful as this is, however, it’s not enough to save the book. “Hotels of North America” feels like a novel hung on a gimmick that can’t sustain it, a novel unsure of what it wants to be. It’s not quite entertaining enough to work as a comedy, and it’s too slight to be wholly profound.
It doesn’t help that Moody tacks on an afterword, casting himself as an initially reluctant admirer of Morse’s reviews. It’s written in exactly the same voice as Morse’s reviews, and it doesn’t add anything really interesting to the narrative.
“Hotels of North America” might well be worth reading for hardcore Moody fans; it has its charming moments, and when the author lets his character be vulnerable, the results are extraordinary. In the end, though, it might have worked better as a novella or a long story. It’s like a hotel with a comfortable bed and working air conditioner, but a shower that doesn’t have quite enough heat or water pressure: It could be worse, but it could definitely be better.
Hotels of North America
Little, Brown: 208 pp., $25
Schaub is a writer who lives in Austin, Texas.