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.