The Motel Life

Toward the end of her essay (sub. req’d) in the New York Review of Books on two of Joyce Carol Oates recent works of fiction—the novel Little Bird of Heaven and the story collection Dear HusbandCaroline Fraser cracks a joke. Describing a scene in Little Bird in which an adolescent girl is kidnapped by her father and taken to a Days Inn where a bloody standoff ensues, Fraser quips: “how that chain must love Joyce Carol Oates.”

Actually, as far as the miseries connected to rented rooms go, Oates isn’t especially brand-loyal. When it comes to imagining the appropriate backdrop for somebody’s emotional instability, any (to pick one of Oates’ favorite adjectives in this context) shabby inn will do. In her story “Mrs. Halifax and Rickie Swann: A Ballad” (in her 2004 collection, I Am No One You Know), a woman carries on an affair with a 15-year-old boy, and together they go on the Grand Tour of New Jersey motels and fast-food joints:

Rarely the same motel twice. Days Inn, Bide-a-Wee, Econo-Lodge, Sleep E Hollow, Holiday Inn (Rahway, Metuchen), Travellers Inn, Best Western. Mrs. Halifax and her teenaged son (Brian/Jason/Troy/Mark). Only Mrs. Halifax entered the hotel lobbies, but her adolescent son was sometimes glimpsed in the parking lot, or in the video arcade, or, if there was an indoor heated pool, there. Once they were safe inside their cozy locked room they luxuriated in their lovemaking, Jacuzzi bathing, take-out McDonald’s, Taco Bell, Chinese and Italian food, giant Pepsis (for Rickie) and six-packs of beer (for Mrs. Halifax).

The exotic dancer/serial killer in her 1999 Rosamond Smith novel Starr Bright Will Be With You Soon stifles her resentment of the place a man has taken her in the novel’s early pages:

If “Starr Bright” was bitterly disappointed in the Paradise Motel, in Sparks, Nevada, having envisioned a first-rate casino hotel in Reno for the night, smelling beforehand the insecticide-odor of the shabby room, she gave not the slightest clue. She was not that kind of girl.

But Days Inn does seem to come in as a handy metaphor for rootlessness and despair. The alcoholic hero of her 1994 novel, What I Lived For, is unsettled when he checks in:

Waking in a shabby Days Inn at exit 14 of I-190 in a no-man’s-land of fast-food restaurants, gas stations, motels, discount outlets approximately six miles north of the Union City limits where, the night before, that’s to say in the early hours of this morning, Corky’d taken a room for a rock-bottom twenty-nine dollars plus tax. Figuring no one would look for him in such a dump. No one who knew him.

Had to do it. Why?—don’t ask. Just a premonition. Couldn’t go home. That big echoing house, never really his. A mausoleum.

The Days Inn passage in Little Bird of Heaven gets at the fictional appeal of such places for Oates—they’re meaningful for the reader precisely because they represent meaninglessness for the people who are forced to stay there:

We were in a first-floor room at the far end of a two-storey stucco building of just discernible shabbiness and melancholy; something in the very jauntiness of the sign Days Inn Vacancies exuded this air of shabbiness and melancholy. In books there is said to be meaning, in our English class our teacher was reading poems by Robert Frost to us and it was astonishing to me, and a little scary, how the words fo a poem has such meaning, but in actual life, in places like the Days Inn motel there is not much meaning, it is just something that is.

I haven’t read enough of Oates’ books to know if occupying a motel room is a guarantee of a sad, bloody end, though it seems a relatively safe bet. Maybe there’s a kind of social commentary built into Oates’ interest in corpses in motel rooms. In ordinary homes, murder victims will likely first be found by a friend of family member; in a hotel the first witness may be a housekeeper or staffer—somebody who’s an outsider to the story in the same way we are as readers. A death in a home devastates loved ones; a death in a Days Inn announces itself to the wider world. In a home, a death can be private; in a hotel, we all have to look. Oates hints at that distinction in her 2007 novel, The Gravedigger’s Daughter, in which the protagonist, Rebecca, works as a chambermaid in a hotel where suicides and murders have occurred:

Suicide in hotel rooms was not uncommon, but murder was very rare. Rebecca had never heard of anyone killing a child in any hotel.

Why do they do it, why check into a hotel, Rebecca had asked someone, possibly Hrube himself at a time when they must’ve been on reasonably good terms, and Hrube had shrugged saying, “To fuck the rest of us up, why else d’you think?”

2 thoughts on “The Motel Life

  1. Nice observation. I’m not terribly well-versed in Oates, but motels do seem to be literary short-hand for a certain state-of-being: alone, aimless, and just at the end of various ropes as it were. Trying to think of something good that happens in a motel in some work of fiction, but am having a hard time with it. Hmmmm

  2. interesting. it’s funny, I kind of love motels, perhaps exactly because of the melancholy weight they carry in fiction. I’d always rather stay in a motel than a hotel, and I prefer junky mom+pop places where you wonder when the sheets were last changed to the overlit chain places. I love photographs of them too, and old post-cards. Motels are places where stories happen, like dive bars… but they also represent a dwindling type of Americana. A grim reminder of the days when cross-country road trips held promise…

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