Despite the atrocious spelling, questionable grammar (and civility), and inventive punctuation that mars online product reviews, sometimes gold appears among the dross in comments that are nearly novels unto themselves. Once, while browsing for living-room seating, I came across a review from a grateful woman who authoritatively praised stools “that will stand up to 300+ lb drunks.”
Rick Moody has staked out this fertile terrain in his latest work, “Hotels of North America,” an entertaining and frenetic epistolary-like novel that follows the peregrinations of protagonist Reginald Edward Morse through his own top-rated reviews on Rate Your Lodging, a website similar to TripAdvisor.
Moody’s early novels “Purple America” and “The Ice Storm” elevated him as one of the wordy young men like David Foster Wallace and Jonathan Franzen who helped define literary fiction in the 1990s. Since then, his work has divided the critics. His last novel, 2011’s “The Four Fingers of Death,” an athletic book about writer’s block, horny astronauts, and a severed arm, was widely panned.
Moody’s latest protagonist, a critic himself, also convulses opinion. Morse frequently addresses his audience of die-hard supporters and virulent detractors. Particularly vexing is one TigerBooty!, a Rate Your Lodging user hell-bent on outing him as a liar (or worse). “So, TigerBooty!, when you say I am a teenage girl, you reveal your own paradoxical ignorance of how teenage girls talk,” he chides.
But Tigerbooty! and company have much to unpack. Rateyourlodging.com’s top critic is a middle-aged, alcoholic, liberal-arts grad, and former securities trader, now a struggling motivational speaker; many of his hotel stays result from dubious business engagements, including a disastrous trip to Tyler, Texas, where he pitches his services to an evangelical megachurch.
Morse approaches his reviews as a sort of fractured memoir. He tells his story in a desperate, remorseful, deeply neurotic voice, equal parts self-aggrandizing and self-loathing. He is almost always very funny. And no wonder: His personal life is a shambles. Much of the book is a rumination on the reasons for the failure of his marriage and his utter worthlessness as the father to a child he cannot visit. In Moody’s deft hands, hotels become a kind of purgatory for Morse to reflect upon his many sins. His Virgil is an unhinged girlfriend he calls K. They are not above pulling petty scams, such as “the Melon Drop” and “the Jamaican Switch,” to get upgrades and free rooms, stunts for which they are sometimes forcibly expelled into the night.
The utter disaster that is Reginald Edward Morse makes for uniquely compelling narration. The most banal amenities become life rafts to a man on the cusp of soul death. Porn flicks, ice buckets, and complimentary snacks become occasions for Nicholson Baker-ish reveries about the beauty of the small and overlooked. “What about towel warmers? Some people really like towel warmers, and I will admit that there is a moment after a shower when a towel warmer is a rather extraordinary thing.”
Above all, Morse has a profound gift for observational humor. “Hotels of North America” is filled with the kinds of jokes and big-picture insight found in the most entertaining criticism. “The question you want to ask about certain lodgings, even if they are newly constructed or newly renovated hotels primarily for alumni who happen to be visiting the campus, is whether sex in these hotels is somehow better than sex at home.”
Has late capitalism turned us all into peripatetic, vaguely dissatisfied opinion-makers, taking our personal strife out upon hapless, low-wage employees? Is the book critic, with her limited column space and diminishing sphere of influence, any different from some goofball grousing, at great length, about a razor on Amazon.com? Perhaps so. More certain, however, is Moody’s triumph in writing a little book that raises such big questions.
By Rick Moody
Little, Brown, 198 pp., $25
Eugenia Williamson is a writer and editor living in Chicago. She can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org.