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'Hotels Of North America' Gets 4 Stars

Rick Moody wrote one of my favorite short stories of all time, a novella called "The Albertine Notes." He wrote one of the most affecting books of my young adulthood, The Ice Storm — and to a white-bread suburban kid who idolized the guts of Hubert Selby Jr., William Burroughs' crooked middle finger to all literary convention and the beautiful ugliness of Charles Bukowski's Skid Row vision, reading The Ice Storm was like swallowing a hand grenade. It was a grown man showing me that the nightmares of the 'burbs and the damage of the neighbors ran just as deep as anything Henry Chinaski ever plinked out on his Underwood.

I fell away for a while, came back. Moody and me, we've danced around for years. He's published stuff I haven't read. Stuff I've felt little connection to.

But now he's come out with a new novel, Hotels Of North America, and reading it reminds me all over again why I once had "Have a beer with Rick Moody and thank him" on my list of things I wanted to do before I turned 40, because this? This book is to middle-age what Albertine was to youth and Ice Storm was to suburbia. It's Moody at his most inventive, most playful, most bitter and biting and cruel.

And yet Hotels is such a brief and weird and mystifying little thing; a 200-page jeu littéraire that takes the form of the collected online reviews of various hotels (and Ikea parking lots and campsites and abandoned hardware stores) as written by one Reginald Edward Morse.

Morse is one of the "Top Reviewers" for a site called RateYourLodging.com — a man who spent two years using the review format to spin a fractured story of love and loneliness and cockroaches and heartbreak. And Hotels actually presents itself as a formal collection — a quasi-epistolary novel in the drag of a published guidebook. It begins with a forward by the director of the North American Society of Hoteliers and Innkeepers (who admits to not having read it) and ends with an afterword by esteemed author Rick Moody, who has been contracted (for not a lot of money) to write about the mysterious popularity (and disappearance) of Reginald Edward Morse.

And in between is Morse in all of his obsessive, digressive, picayune and odd-duck glory. He was once some kind of stockbroker or day trader, was bad at it, got fired (or quit or vanished) and, on a whim, became a highly sought-after motivational speaker (who seems to be sought by precisely no one) and, in addition, a con man and itinerant gambler and occasional harasser of members of the Pet Shop Boys. He can smell a temporary meth-lab from the parking lot. Can spot rooms that have been used for shooting porn. His voice is both didactic and irony-blind at the same time. Preachy about things like unlaundered bedspreads and the state of Italian air conditioning, and comfortable carrying around a few dead roaches in case he needs some leverage in negotiating the final bill.

'Hotels Of North America' ... reminds me all over again why I once had "Have a beer with Rick Moody and thank him" on my list of things I wanted to do before I turned 40.

His "reviews" of hotel rooms are rarely reviews of hotel rooms but instead track (in a jumbled-up sort of way) his life over the course of years — with his ex-wife, with a girlfriend called K, with an unnamed language arts instructor, or alone. And they are bizarre, his musings on the Davenport Hotel in Spokane or the Days Inn in Jackson, Tennessee. They are about identity and smooth jazz and various medical conditions and the misery of missing people you can never get back to again. Sometimes they are about the cookies in the lobby. Or a hair dryer. Mostly they're about want or need, the falling-apart way that Morse has stumbled through life, and his unfailing belief that he has something worth saying anyway.

Moody gives Morse an air of class that feels rented and roughly used. Every word that comes out of his mouth has a bow tie on it. And old, nice shoes with too much polish covering the scuffs. Every word is duded up in a way that feels deliberately and perfectly false (a tone instantly recognizable to anyone who has spent more than five minutes on the Internet), and it's brilliant, except when it's maddening. Or annoying. Or gross.

And Moody — who has spent years screwing with time, with words, with character and expectation — plays with all of those reactions beautifully, using this sad, strange, alienating (yet weirdly, almost cloyingly, personal) form to craft a back-and-forth picture of a man with no connections more real than his imagined online readers, so vain that he has to lie in hotel reviews, and so broken that he sometimes even tells the truth.

Jason Sheehan is an ex-chef, a former restaurant critic and the current food editor of Philadelphia magazine. But when no one is looking, he spends his time writing books about spaceships, aliens, giant robots and ray guns. Tales From the Radiation Age is his latest book.

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