Like many young Americans longing for autonomy, I was once transformed by On The Road. It is a book rich with adolescent delights: an uneasy balance between navel-gazing and catharsis, a few tantalizing moments of prurience, a restless tapping of the foot, a bantam pulse. It was a book I could wear like a jacket or ponder closer to the skin, and I never looked at the highway, the bus station, or the dented stainless sheathing of passenger rail cars with quite the same gaze ever again. The road cuts through the heart of my imagination.
As important as On The Road has been to my life, though, I have only read it twice. The first time, I was somewhere in the middle of junior high, fumbling my way through a dog-eared Viking critical edition. I remember the used paperback well—unlike my first dog, oddly, or my first beer. It was spare: a deep and stolid yellow, embellished merely with a line drawing of a viking ship in an oval frame at the bottom of the cover that could have equally been the sly Ulysses’s trireme plying the wine-dark sea. I read it sitting on the curb waiting for the school bus or lying on the twin bed in my bedroom, the neighbors just fifteen feet away—their whole lives separate from mine in our whimsically-named subdivision, equal but separate in a way that Kerouac and his cast of intrepid boddhisatvas would have misunderstood as thoroughly as I misunderstood them.
The second time I read Kerouac he left a deeper mark. I was nineteen and working in a door factory, going through the first period of serious reading in my adult life. It was a mass market paperback for a letterpress life. I woke up in that year or two at 4:30 AM to catch an early ride with my friend and his dad in the dark, enclosed back of his pest control truck; onto a bus on the westside of Jacksonville, Florida at 6:10 for a forty minute ride downtown, weaving through the suburban warrens of the New South city; off into the cold morning and through the mostly-abandoned streets on foot to the warehouse on Harper Street by 7:00. I remember one morning in particular when I read and walked at the same time, my eyes dodging back and forth from the page to the road as I weaved in and out of the outstretched ends of trailers backed up to loading docks in order to avoid traffic. I slipped the book into a back pocket as I climbed the stanchions of a flat railroad car stopped on the tracks. Up and over and down again, onward to work breathing steam in the riverine cold with the book in one hand and a time clock in the other. Hemmed in by necessity and bad decisions, however, I could only mimic Kerouac’s perambulations in my morning walks. I could not leave it all behind. I did not have the imagination.
Similar to my experiences reading Kerouac, narrator Reginald Morse’s life in Hotels of North America reveals its meanings through the places in which it unfolds. Morse is not a traditional narrator, or a reliable one. Instead, he reveals his story piece-by-piece, in memory, through hotel reviews on the fictional travel website rateyourlodging.com. Morse’s story is as tragic as it is germane to the first decades of our century. From brittle affluence in investment banking and a salacious love affair through pathetic ruin to a sort of rebirth through nomadic scamming and motivational speaking, Morse’s online screeds track the tensions underlining the end of the American century and mimic the twilight howls of the white American male. Like myself as a young man riding the bus and climbing over railroad cars, Morse is not in control of his own growth. The hotels in which he lives and the people and ghosts and regrets with which he shares them mark his experience in ways that Dean Moriarty and Carlo Marx would have scorned.
Morse is in control of his story, however, in ways that Sal, Dean, and Carlo—stuck behind the pale glow of the headlights and between the yellow and white lines of the highway—could only envy. Morse offers his reflections in a seemingly random order: jumping from year to year and place to place. This is a form of power for Morse, who writes like an erudite and professional reviewer instead of a motivated amateur. But the flaws in this construction rapidly make themselves known. Morse’s language plods at times like a walrus on the beach; his faux professionalism quickly gives way to bold explanations of scams and crude sex acts. Though his story unfolds through a slipshod collection of reflections rather than a linear narrative–like Jay Gatsby glancing into some of his rooms as his own story begins to spiral out of control—Morse is as compelled to recount his failures as his readers are to arrange them into some sort of order. These are the kinds of spaces and identities the Internet encourages us to create: grand palaces of erudition or experience, beauty, and worldliness that are nonetheless bound to ourselves and limited by our own weaknesses.
It is unfair to compare Rick Moody’s Hotels of North America to On The Road, but one cannot read Moody’s tragicomic portrait of postmodern isolation without indirectly reading Kerouac. Roads and margins, isolation and self-absorption run through the heart of both. But where Kerouac’s protagonist Sal Paradise is firmly in control of the narrative–a uniquely postwar optimism that could find the shining possibilities even In vagrant idol-worship–Moody’s protagonist Reginald Morse reflects an inverse experience. Presented with the ability to tell his own story through online reviews, he is instead locked into the trajectory of his own failure. Sal Paradise could turn the relentless order of the road into an order of the self; Reginald Morse uses the chaotic tools of the digital age to offer an indefinite and unreliable self-portrait. Both are powerfully evocative of their times. Sometimes Hotels of North America is underwhelming in its yearning for accessibility, yes; and George Saunders is undeniably the master of this kind of individualistic prose, indeed. Yet this is a small novel with large ambitions. It achieves almost all of them.
Buy Hotels of North America or find it in your local library here.