A Perfect Dose of Humor and Insight: On Rick Moody’s ‘Hotels of North America’

November 18, 2015 | 2 books mentioned 6 4 min read

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Rick Moody’s fifth novel, Hotels of North America, written as a series of reviews of inns and motels, appears at first glance to epitomize the term “high concept.” I recoiled when I realized the setup, as I always do when confronted with these kinds of projects. “It’s Moby-Dick retold in tweets!” people say, as if having come up such an idea makes its presence on Earth worthwhile. “It’s a movie about a chronic cheat who, thanks to his son’s birthday wish, can’t tell a lie!” I feel I’ve suffered through it having only heard the logline. I’ve always believed that books based on this kind of gimmickry beg to be judged more harshly than all others, and it takes either a certain kind of courage or a certain kind of obliviousness even to attempt one.

Like all reviews, the ones in Hotels of North America say less about what they purport to appraise than they do about than the appraiser himself. In this case, the author claims to be an itinerant, middle-aged man who makes his living as a motivational speaker and, as the book progresses, as a Top Reviewer for RateYourLodging.com, from which the content of the book is supposedly drawn. I say “claims,” because his true identity is called into question, first by commenters on the site, to whose suspicions he replies — “Again, I have to address briefly the idea that I am not who I say I am, a line of argument fomented by KoWojahk283 and by TigerBooty!, but not exclusively by them.” — and second by Rick Moody himself, who in an afterword claims to have become fixated on finding the reviews’ true creator, who goes by the name Reginald Edward Morse.

The eloquent author of said reviews frequently deviates into full-on brilliance as he writes about all things lodging related and non-lodging related in a series of 37 dispatches penned wherever he happens to be staying at the time of his writing, on the subject of wherever he was staying during the significant events of his life, starting as early as his first childhood experience staying in a hotel. That entry — titled in the style of all of the book’s sections: “The Plaza Hotel, 768 Fifth Avenue, New York, New York, December 27, 1970-January 2, 1971” — marks one of the author’s rare “four star” stays.

Most of them don’t rank so well. Take for instance, “La Quinta Inn, 4122 McFarland Boulevard East, Tuscaloosa, Alabama, January 5-9, 2002,” a place so grim that Reginald resorts to medication. “The list of Ambien side effects,” he writes, “includes headache, depression, sleepiness, and profound personality change, and nearly all of the literature suggests that you should call your doctor if, while taking Ambien, you have a profound personality change, but the question, in this rearview mirror, is whether the profound personality change I experienced in La Quinta in Tuscaloosa was caused by the Ambien or by the La Quinta itself. For example, the interior decorating of La Quinta could in fact cause profound personality change, as this decorating had a nauseating insistence on what I like to call Mexican pastels.” The “review” goes on from there, finally settling on a one-star rating.

In general, Reginald is most likely to be found boarding at inns averaging, by his own rating, only two stars. And not only inns. He (sometimes joined by his girlfriend, K.) can also be found, during low points, staying overnight at Union Station, am Ikea Parking Lot, and Sid’s Hardware. Wherever he roams, he reviews not only the beds, keys, clerks, and lobby cookies (“I adamantly oppose the attempt to buy hotel allegiance with cookies.”), but also his collapsing life itself, a past marriage and affair, fatherhood, and which short con works best when it comes to getting early check-ins and discounts, or for skipping out on the bill entirely. Though Reginald is not a man notable for his high ethical standards — in fact, he’s sort of terrible — he is undeniably funny. In describing the disappointing cookie from the first section titled “Dupont Embassy Row, Massachusetts Avenue, Washington, DC, October 31-November 2, 2010,” Reginald writes, “So as K. and I walked out of the Dupont to try to find a steak joint in the Dupont Circle neighborhood, we broke the complimentary cookie obtained in the lobby into small pieces and flung it over the fence of the Indonesian embassy, thinking that the scheming and warlike Indonesians were probably out at the time, and in the event that the Indonesians had not fed their local squirrels.”

I am not a seeker of funny books, nor do I look to fiction for laffs, or even laughs, but this book had me giggling so often and so loudly that I began to annoy the person with whom I dwell. Reading Hotels of North America as I did, over the course of two days, seemed the perfect dose of humor and insight. All comic novels should aspire to such heights.

I braced myself for the downhill slide with every new chapter, aware of the notorious difficulty involved in keeping artistic gimmicks from going stale, but my interest and investment only deepened as the novel wore on, as Moody revealed not only a man, but an entire culture through these scattered fragments that mirror the workings of memory and of real day-to-day living. Four out four stars.

has written about books for many places. His first novel, Arcade, is out now.

6 comments:

  1. This is one of those “comic novels” where the entire premise of the novel is phony, thus the comedy is phony, thus the book fails, because once the “comedy” is stripped away there’s literally nothing left, no pulse, no insight, no plot, no characters, just a bunch of words.

    R.E. Morse (that’s actually the character’s name. Seriously. If anyone still decides to read this book after knowing that…god help you) gets paid to post these hotel reviews. That’s his “job”. Which, as we all know, does not exist. The entire premise of tripadvisor and the like are that they are NOT paid reviews. Paying people to post these reviews just makes no sense.

    Another book in this sorry genre is Sam Lipsyte’s Homeland, where the narrator is posting rants to his high school’s alumni bulletin board, which, wtf? is not a thing that has ever existed.

    And Millions, seriously, you can do better. Understand that you need a positive review to promote your review with Moody, and those probably aren’t easy to come by, but if “I am such a serious Literary Type that I usually do not appreciate humor in fiction/life, but this one had some knee-slappers!” passes as criticism these days, well, my neighbor’s book club would be glad to contribute a review or two.

  2. There is no such thing as Hitler Studies Department. Does that make White Noise null and void as well? If the premise of a work of FICTION needs to have some analogous counterpoint in the real world then…Jesus Christ, I can’t believe we’re even having this conversation. I don’t much care for Rick Moody, as I think he is the arch-overwriter of his generation of novelists, but really, denigrating his books based on whether or not the premise exists seems to me to be low-hanging fruit.

  3. Anon

    A Hitler Studies Department COULD exist. A pay-for-hotel-review website could not (if so it would already exist). Besides, White Noise is not a strictly comic novel, nor is it structured around that Hitler Studies Department. Moody’s entire novel depends on the pay-for-travel-writing conceit. Without it, what do you have? A guy named Remorse.

    The point is not that there need be an exact real world counterpoint. The point is that a counterpoint should be within the bounds of possibility. Because, if the premise is false, then would it be okay for the emotions to be false? The characterization? Again, it’s fiction, right?

    Without some tether to the real world, literary fiction just becomes fairy tale. As for Moody, either he’s too lazy to come up with a decent, believable structure, or he misunderstands how travel review sites work. Either way, why would I want to commit any time to his work?

  4. A pay for travel writing could exist. That doesn’t seem out of the realm of possibility. You know what sounds out of the realm of possibility to me? Elves. Fairies. Magical rings that contain all the world’s evil. By your logic no fantasy novels would ever exist, nor the outer reaches of sci-fi. Is pay for travel writing more fantastical than some of PKD’s conceits? Time travel doesn’t exist. It probably never will. Does that negate the premise of the plethora of time travel novels written? I honestly don’t understand your argument, and I am not a champion of Rick Moody, as I really don’t like reading his prose, at least not since Purple America (I closed The Diviners after 40 pages and The Four Fingers or Death after ten and haven’t returned to him since). Hey, you know what else doesn’t exist and is exceedingly outside the realm of possibility? Vampires. Zombies. The Force. Blah blah blah and so on and so on. Please convince me of your argument. I am open minded, I really am.

  5. Cheeeze, this is a ridiculous argument. Many literary works feature impossible conceits. Why don’t you try suspending your disbelief and enjoying the work on its own terms? Besides, is it really so bizarre that someone would be paid to review something? It seems just as unlikely that someone would be paid to review this book, but here we are.

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