Maybe it was Reno's glut of old-man bars that put Willy Vlautin onto a self-consciously Bukowskian path. He remembers their names: Last Dollar Saloon, Fitzgerald's, the Continental, El Cortez Lounge. He described them over a couple pints at Flowers in the U-District after a reading from his debut novel, The Motel Life, at University Book Store not long ago.

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Born and raised in the self-appointed Biggest Little City in the World, Vlautin was drawn to those bars, dark in the daytime, haunted by solitary fellows hunched over well drinks and bottled beers. Eighteen years old and he wanted to be an old man, he said, attracted to a poisonous, boozy romance because he was never encouraged to expect more: He thought his passion for music—listening to it, talking about it, playing it—would never be more than a passion.

He could've succeeded at failure—something akin to freedom—and disappeared. Or he could've failed at failure and made something of himself. Luck, Vlautin said, has a lot to do with which way he went. Sometimes a life lived so marginally pivots on the slightest of points.

There was the time in the early '90s when he saw Crackerbash, a Sub Pop band from Portland, making their way down the West Coast. These dudes were angry as hell, jumping around onstage like maniacs. Afterward, Vlautin talked to the lead singer and found him to be gentle voiced and open-minded. It was an epiphany, a glimpse at the world outside Reno, where angry people could be decent people, too.

A decade of singing songs to indifferent drinkers in dive bars doesn't do much for the self-confidence. All it took was a nudge and Vlautin left home.

In Portland he painted houses, drove a delivery truck, and put together a country-rock band. After a few years, his band, Richmond Fontaine, built up a strong following on Vlautin's raw, sympathetic songwriting. They toured the world and released a few albums to critical acclaim. A huge fan of Raymond Carver, Vlautin was also writing short stories and stashing them away in his closet. Writing had long been another passion without much promise. But when a chance publishing opportunity came, Vlautin was ready for it.

Vlautin is a true literary talent, and The Motel Life is a wonderful discovery. His success is a suitably morbid reminder that there's nothing so tragic as wasted potential. This is what fills the story of The Motel Life: unfulfilled promise, misplaced integrity, and plain-old bad decisions.

Orphan brothers Frank and Jerry LeeFlannigan decide to bail out of Reno after Jerry Lee is involved in a fatal hit-and-run accident.

The brothers aren't exactly homeless or jobless—they live out of their car, or sleep in weekly rate motels when they've saved money from day laboring. Picking up and leaving doesn't require much preparation.

On the lam, Jerry Lee is albatrossed by guilt. He returns to Reno and tries to commit suicide. Frank—the laconic, all-too-self-aware narrator—"the loneliest guy I know," as Jerry Lee calls him—is forced to deal with his depressed, hospitalized brother. Neither knows what to do, nor do they have anyone to offer guidance or help. They want to do the right thing—find the victim's family and give them some money, maybe, some closure—though they're totally unequipped and untrained to do so. Their functional alcoholism—"drinking as a way of life," in Vlautin's words—further blurs their predicament. It's a blur Vlautin is familiar with.

Familiarity is ultimately what makes The Motel Life enthralling: Vlautin's familiarity with the setting, with the lifestyle, with the moral ambiguity and the desperate need for clarity. Vlautin's prose is unadorned and immediately gratifying. Stories within the story—Frank's is an active, creative mind, and he habitually unravels vivid if farfetched yarns of his and Jerry Lee's World War II exploits, wild sex escapades, true loves, and other fantasies—convey within the brothers a grasp of a better world they know they'll never reach. Their willful daydreaming amid poverty and recklessness is heartbreaking.

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It isn't pretty, but nor is this the harsh, broken-down reality of Carver. Vlautin explained to me that he's written love songs for the most down-and-out characters in his stories, songs he'll perfect and perform with his band, because he fears he brutalizes his characters too relentlessly. His instinctive reaction to failure is hope. recommended

jzwickel@thestranger.com