Manifesting dead-end destinies

Willy Vlautin attempts the great escape

You don't have to loiter at City Lights to understand the legacy of the artistic nomad. From the wagon trains and Gold Rush days through the Beat writers' influential tomes, getting the hell outta Dodge has been a trope for wordsmiths ranging from Jack Kerouac to Journey. Between the West Coast's history and our wide-laned highways, a bittersweet romance with drifters is forever ingrained in our corner pocket of the country.

These days, though, literary types are more often found in Internet cafes than in gas stations. I imagine those double yellow lines are known most intimately by truck drivers and musicians, both of whom perform endless loops on California blacktop. Willy Vlautin, frontman for Portland, Ore.,'s Richmond Fontaine, has turned three years as a touring musician and 10 years working for a trucking company into a literary device. He's in town twice this week, to promote his band and his debut novel, The Motel Life(although the reading for the latter, at Green Apple Books, happened June 26, the night before this column came out). The Motel Lifeand Richmond Fontaine's new CD, Thirteen Cities, offer twists on two-lane escape routes. The dead-enders populating Vlautin's imagination don't move forward so much as they indent the gravel with the deep ruts of their insecurities.

"I've always been into the idea of running. My whole life, even when I was a little kid, I had the daydream that if you could just get out, you could change the life you're having," says Vlautin over the phone from his place in Scappoose, Ore. "I guess it's pretty typically American, the idea that if you could just change the outside, your insides will be better. That's always the way I've dealt with things, that when things get rough you can always run away."

Unlike most van-bound songwriters, Vlautin doesn't offer navel-gazing odes to the poor, lonely performer. He doesn't pine for his baby back home. He projects the alienation of the traveling minstrel on folks eking out existences in the same pit stops one assumes Richmond Fontaine tours through.

The stickpins through Thirteen Cities mark a couple of California towns — Stockton, Mojave — but also sprawl haphazardly around Portland, Spokane, Reno, and places with names like Bullhead City and Walla Walla. Within those locales, lives turn toward wreckage a dozen mistakes at a time. In "Moving Back Home #2," Vlautin sings, "I'm living in my mom's basement again/ I come in at 4 a.m./ She gets pissed, got to be up at 6/ We get into a fight so I go out again." Once out the door, the guy heads to the top of a parking garage, where his restless mind taunts, "Is jumping off a sin?" Other men merely walk the distance from one bar tab to the next: "Capsized" takes confession from a broken soul who admits, "I never called my parents/ I called my brother drunk too many times/ Until he finally wouldn't answer his phone."

"With Thirteen Cities, all those characters are hitting the wall and they're realizing that there is no place to run," explains Vlautin, "and they're trying to at least make some kind of amends to the life that they've led."

He adds that he's always been interested in "the daily struggles of battling yourself, whether it's your nerves or your confidence ... my confidence has always been so shaky that it's been a constant fight to keep it up," he says. "And that's why I tend to write about characters that have hard times."

Vlautin's Dust Bowl ballads use alt-country twang and plaintive guitar melodies to underscore bouts of working-class frustration — house painters shaft a day laborer, and a midnight stalker covets families who "go on vacations/ Stick together year after year." Some residents of these Thirteen Cities note their tragedies with shrugged shoulders, but also with more than a bit of shame. "$87 and a Guilty Conscience That Gets Worse the Longer I Go" passes a flipped semi on the way to Las Cruces. "We pushed in the windshield and pulled the guy out," sings Vlautin, "We left him on the side of the road/ My friend said we had to leave before the cops showed/ What he'd done I didn't know."

These same themes of disappointment and disconnection are furthered in Vlautin's novel The Motel Life. The book focuses on the downward spiral of brothers Frank and Jerry Lee, whose Manifest Destiny stalls inside their beater cars, beer-can breakfasts, and a Reno existence lived out in motel rooms and hospital beds. It's Vlautin's first foray into a published story without the soundtrack, and it's enriched by years spent working out these same themes in his songs.

In Motel, tragic figures suffocate slowly on their mistakes: Jerry Lee hits a kid on a bicycle after hitting the bottle too hard, and Frank's attempts to save his brother's ass only compound the problem. It's a Catch-22 that runs in the family. Frank remembers when their dad gambled himself into debt, waking up the brothers up for an instant "vacation" late one night. He tells his kids, "Just put some clothes in a bag. I know it doesn't make sense but do as I say. Be dressed and ready in a half-hour, and no talking. We got to be quiet." They take a cab to the train station diner, where they sit and talk until morning. "That night in the bus station lay heavy on us as we drove down the highway," Vlautin writes. "Neither of us said it, but we were both wishing we could have left that night, that if we had, then maybe everything would have been different, maybe we would have been different."

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