nolead begins By Rick Moody

Little, Brown. 208 pp. $25 nolead ends

nolead begins

Reviewed by

John Domini

'In a hotel setting," declares one overnighter, "narrative exposition is your enemy." He isn't talking about prose. No, the subject is "adult movies," and the speaker proves funny, talking about porn as though it were Proust. He admits to enjoying the XXX stuff himself when he's alone on the road. His high-toned remarks turn shamefaced. He confesses to both the "halfhearted pleasure" and "the surge of despond."

Throughout Hotels of North America, a sweet screwball of a novel, Rick Moody serves up this blend of sophistication and melancholy. He seasons things further with slapstick, such as a wardrobe malfunction involving river waders and boxer shorts. Although there's remorse in the protagonist's very name, Reginald Edward Morse, he also stumbles into happiness. His romantic trajectory emerges as the principal story, and though it involves the pain of divorce and bankruptcy, it also lands him eventually in a relationship he calls "ultraviolet bliss."

This novel, brief as it is, allows the author his fullest range of play to date. His previous novel, the improbable masterwork Four Fingers of Death (2010), certainly had fun, with its trip to Mars and talking chimp. But Four Fingers told its stories in order. This new fiction trashes "narrative exposition."

For starters, it pretends it isn't a novel. It claims that the hapless but articulate Morse has established himself as one of the "top online reviewers" at Rate Your Lodging. His work has been chosen to initiate "a small, high-end run" of such books. A brief preface, ostensibly the work of a hotel executive, warns us that Morse posted his evaluations "haphazardly," in keeping with "nomadic life" in a "grueling economy."

This "collection" of 37 Morse reviews begins in 2012 and ends two years later. Mostly, however, the reviews jump around in time. The earliest recalls a preteen stay at the Plaza in New York in 1970. The next takes us to the Viking Motel, outside Eugene, Ore., in late 2011, where Morse has, for lack of anything better, taken a gig officiating at a wedding.

Hotels often brings off paradoxes: a sweet stay that turns to a bitter memory, or a farce that tumbles into an abyss of grief. Most of the funny business derives from an unsparing honesty about the American hardscrabble. At the Viking, Morse makes a hilarious mess of his boxers and waders. After he hears the pie-eyed sweet nothings out of the couple to be married, folks even worse off than he, his review ends as a woeful litany of love's collapse. The episode unfolds like a magic trick, and this book is full of them.

John Domini's latest book is "The Sea-God's Herb." Next year, he will bring out a new set of stories, "MOVIEOLA!"