In “Primary Sources,” a piece from 1995, Rick Moody offered a miniature autobiography by way of a footnoted register of formative texts and recordings. A satirical story from a few years later, “Wilkie Fahnstock, the Boxed Set,” chronicled a young man’s shifting affiliations and meager accomplishments through a sales pitch for his collected mix tapes. Those pieces have stuck with me, partly because I’m interested in cultural history as overlay maps of personal taste, partly because I still sometimes chuckle over the description of Wilkie’s “beer-related paunch,” a good example of Moody’s ear for comic circumlocution.
Evocative of Nabokov and Borges, Moody’s new novel, “Hotels of North America,” presents another critical biography, this time through the discursive reviews that Reginald Edward Morse has posted to the website, RateYourLodging.com. The reviews, said to be compiled by a hospitality-industry trade association, are printed in the order they were published, though they were often written years or decades after Morse’s stay. The tension, then, comes from the nonlinear elaboration of his past, the slow revelation of his chief sorrows and regrets.
His has been a bumbling life of continual indignities and clutch failures. After a WASP-y childhood (“I come from people whose first and last names are often reversible”), there was a “spotty and episodic” trudge through college; then some years in high finance; alcoholism; sobriety; a tumultuous marriage and other doomed love affairs; alcoholism; a poignant career as a traveling motivational speaker.
Funny and companionable in his at times repellent way, Morse is a snob in embarrassed circumstances, often defensively misanthropic, lordly even in self-confessed defeat. He characterizes nationalities with the sort of “ironic” racism employed, for instance, by Amy Sedaris’ stage persona, and his own struggles have not left him tenderly empathetic to the downtrodden.
Like Rick Moody, an ironized version of whom contributes an afterword, Morse is a fluid writer of often careening musicality (a taxonomy of the matrimonial bed as a place of actual or elusive sleep is particularly alive), and the reviews employ some of Moody’s signatures. Just for instance, a table tennis player, already beyond paunchy, is hindered by an “alcohol-related disability,” and there are other “-related” modifiers.
One of Morse’s rants, a disparagement of “smooth jazz,” echoes passages from two casual, previously published Moody articles: a reading-tour diary penned for the literary journal Postroad, and a short piece of music criticism for the Rumpus. As before, the style is dubbed “smoove,” apparently in reference to how the fricative “th” is sometimes transformed by speakers of African-American Vernacular English. Morse’s on-again-off-again companion and true love, K., urges the retirement of this word. May she someday prevail.
Moving from barbed, brokenhearted cleverness and playful conceits to genuine pathos is an oft-attempted but very difficult trick. The transition here is never complete; but close. Along with laughs and some tedium, there are several moving, hollowed-out mediations here. You probably won’t come to love Reginald Morse, but quite likely he’ll earn your sympathy. You might even want to leave a mint on his forlornly damp pillow.
Dylan Hicks is a writer and musician. His second novel, “Amateurs,” will be released in 2016.