Literary Corner Cafe

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Book Review - The Weary Motel by Mark Spencer

The Weary Motel doesn't have a breakneck plot. It doesn't have lots of suspense. It's not a mystery; it's not a thriller; it's not a romance. It doesn't have a "gimmick" like some books, and it's not topical like others. It doesn't introduce us to any "brave new world." In other words, The Weary Motel is definitely not the kind of book that's going to land on anyone's bestseller list anytime soon, though it's certainly better written than most.

The Weary Motel takes place in the fictional town of Peebles, population 3,811, in southern Ohio, just southwest of Steubenville (very near the town where Clark Gable was born), near the West Virginia panhandle. It's coal-mining country, one of the least exotic places on earth. Most of the people are extremely poor, and many lives revolve around the sheer battle just to "stay" alive.

As would be expected, the people that inhabit this book aren't glamorous or wealthy or involved in any exotic pursuit; they're just trying to make the best of what they've got, and along the way, maybe eke out a little happiness as well. As the novel opens, Jo Rene, a single woman approaching middle age, is setting out on a mission...a mission to spy on her live-in postman boyfriend, Buck, whom she believes, for no good reason, is lying to her and sleeping with someone on his route.

With the second paragraph, Spencer establishes the tone of his novel, and we can see this is going to be a novel that's both grim and grimly funny. Not satire. It's not biting enough for that. Not even black comedy; it's too whimsical. But, it is going to be filled with insight and raw honesty.

Spencer is an extremely talented author, and while all of his writing skills are strong, it doesn't take many pages to realize that characterization is definitely his forte. All the characters Spencer creates are "genuine"; they really "come alive" on the page and they burrow into the reader's heart and stay there. Spencer's able to do what so many other, far lesser but better known authors have never mastered, i.e., translate his insight into human nature into the written word.

Spencer's characters may seem a bit quirky and offbeat at first glance, but as the book progresses, the reader comes to identify with them more and more, for what human among us isn't a bit quirky and offbeat, himself, at least at times? Spencer simply reaches deep inside his characters and turns them inside out for the reader to get to know. It's the loving humanity that this author bestows on each and every one of his characters that sets The Weary Motel apart and lifts it above the ordinary.

The Weary Motel features an ensemble cast, rather than focusing on one central protagonist. This book tells the story of Dill, Jo Rene's brother, and the heartache he feels over the early death of his young wife, Carol; it tells the story of Jo Rene and her struggle to survive in a family she loves and one we know that, if given a choice, she'd no doubt choose again, though she might want to kick herself for doing so; it tells the story of Dawnell, Dill's teenaged daughter and her desire to break free of the suffocating atmosphere of Peebles despite the fact that she's going to have ties to this little town forever.

The supporting characters in The Weary Motel are as beautifully drawn and engaging as the major ones, although several of them aren't very likable, but then, they shouldn't be. There's Buck, the man Jo Rene should be woman enough to toss out, but doesn't, because love, more often than not, gets in the way of common sense and causes us to do stupid things instead of smart ones; there's Lori, Dill's unhappily married love interest; there's Tonya, the girl who dreams of running away to Florida, but settles for Buck and roses and chocolates, instead, at least for the time being. There's Dill and Jo Rene's mother and grandmother, two feisty women who are both surprising and yet, wholly believable.

Like the characters in Spencer's previous book, Love and Reruns in Adams County, the characters in The Weary Motel do the "wrong" thing more often than they do the "right," but they are, above all else, supremely human and extraordinarily memorable. Spencer really lets us see into the hearts of these people and I found myself chuckling on almost every page and thinking, yes, that's exactly the way I felt; that's exactly the way life is.

One of the most memorable and endearing scenes occurs when Jo Rene receives a chain letter. Like most of us, her first instinct is to chuck it into the nearest trash can, but also, like most of us, Jo Rene doesn't want to tempt fate, so she deals with the letter, instead, and in a very comical and human manner.

While the characters take center stage in The Weary Motel, one really can't review this book without mentioning Spencer's fresh and funny dialogue. His narrative voice is strong and it's unique. He carefully walks the line between the comic and the grim without so much as a single misstep. In addition, his dialogue has subtext, something I think many authors today simply dismiss as being unnecessary. I have yet to read another book that can even come close to being as poignant, as truly funny and as bittersweet as is The Weary Motel. The subject matter is sometimes dark and grim and serious, but Spencer never forgets that even in the grimmest moments there can often be found a comic side to life, and to his enormous credit, he focuses on both.

The Weary Motel is a fresh, funny and touching novel and one I would definitely recommend to anyone. It's really too bad it's not more widely read. It's not too bad for Spencer; he's got the talent and the skill to create a lot more books. The people missing out are the people who fail to read this book. I'm glad I'm not one.


Recommended: Yes.

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