Two debut novels depict radically different worlds
BY MOLLY TEMPLETON
The absurd fun of Jonathan Selwood’s debut novel, The Pinball Theory of Apocalypse (Harper Perennial, $13.95), is pretty well encapsulated in the artwork of its heroine, Isabel Raven. She paints masterpieces with celebrities’ faces: Tom and Katie in American Gothic, Cher as Mona Lisa. Isabel’s paintings are beginning to get noticed; a newspaper feature is forthcoming, and some dot-com billionaire is buying a bunch of them. But her art dealer wants her to model in an ad campaign for vaginal rejuvenation surgery, and her boyfriend is rumored to be screwing “the Latina Britney Spears.” It’s a busy life.
Selwood’s novel, which is like the hyperactive kid sister of Jonathan Lethem’s You Don’t Love Me Yet in its depiction of an off-kilter, arty Los Angeles, takes its name from a theory Isabel’s physicist father developed about the end of the world. It plays out, though, as the apocalyptic implosion of Isabel’s own life, as the often-tipsy artist whirls around L.A., bouncing off her parents, their super-fit neighbor, her agent, her ex, the billionaire and Cordelia, said billionaire’s 13-year-old daughter, who thinks Isabel is the next Andy Warhol. Cordelia is well beyond wise beyond her years; she’s a drug-dealing, art-appreciating, chain-smoking, museum-robbing caricature of all wise-beyond-their-years 13-year-olds, and her appearance kicks Pinball Theory into a manic gear. Between raging wildfires and slightly psycho pop princesses, Isabel’s wild rise to semi-fame is getting extremely complicated — or maybe it’s just another day in L.A. With its sleek and slightly bitter sense of humor, Selwood’s speedy read is a chipper send-up of art, love and a city that is most definitely not full of angels.
While Selwood’s novel is madcap and decadent, Willy Vlautin’s first novel, The Motel Life (Harper Perennial, $13.95), is entirely the opposite. Originally published in the U.K. in 1999, The Motel Life is a dark, beer-soaked story of two brothers, Frank and Jerry Lee Flannigan, living a down-and-out life in Reno. The Flannigan brothers come from nothing and have nothing; the title refers to the young men’s homes, here and there in different motels. Jerry Lee is missing a leg from a train-jumping accident, and Frank drinks himself to the point of vomiting with alarming regularity. Their day-to-day existence is fractured the night Jerry Lee hits a kid on a bike in the middle of the night. Without any idea what to do, the two dump the body at the local hospital and leave town, only to wind up back in Reno before long, even more broke and battered than before.
The Motel Life is not a story in which you root for the underdog chracters to make good and come out ahead; it’s a story where you can only hope they make it to the end less battered, less beaten down, than you expect. Yet it’s not aimlessly or artily bleak; it’s told in Frank’s voice, and Frank is a storyteller, though an unpolished one. He carries Jerry Lee and himself through the days on wild adventure yarns and romantic tales the likes of which they never experience in reality, and the honest, hopeful, sometimes illogical leaps his stories take are moments of brightness among the bleak reality of lives spent in and out of bars, hospitals, used-car lots, motels and diners. Vlautin (who is also the singer-songwriter for Portland band Richmond Fontaine) writes without judgement, his story like a spare, dusty film that you saw once and barely want to remember, even though, in its strange way, it was beautiful.
Jonathan Selwood and Willy Vlautin read at 5:30 pm Thursday, Aug. 23, at the Ace Hotel in Portland.