Travelers Rest by Keith Lee Morris
Little, Brown, 2015; 358 pp
Reviewed by Bobby Fischer
A mother, father, and son pick up the father’s brother from rehab with plans to drive cross country to return to the family’s home but are sidetracked by a blizzard and are forced to stay in a near abandoned hotel with no functioning heat or electricity, in a town called Good Night, Idaho. The uncle, noted by the precocious son to be a degenerate, has sexual designs on the mother. The mother recognizes the sexual tension as a symptom of a life that she’s not living; a physical example of the fact that she chose the safe route with her husband, a professor of anthropology. The son is unbelievably smart in the way that children in novels often are. He goes into trances symptomatic of disorders that kids in these kinds of novels often have. The son, Dewey, is our main protagonist, and the novel feels most sure in his mature-by-way-of-suspension-of-disbelief voice.
Travelers Rest by Keith Lee Morris provides roads into what feels like domestic horror, part of the same bloodstream as The Shining or The Haunting of Hill House before it takes a bizarre swerve away from gut level terror and into a hypnotic, meandering, and ultimately kind of boring narrative. There’s a dreamy but lukewarm psychedelia that consists of characters literally fading in and out of existence as an unreal but poetic amount of snow mounts. The titular hotel, it turns out is a focal point for shattered perspective. As our family checks in, they’re isolated one by one and lost in space and time. Each disappears to the other. This is typical for the town: its residents are made up mainly of people who were children when they escaped the hotel, but whose families were swallowed by it. They’re known to the locals as souvenirs, raised by the town. Dewey is in danger of becoming a souvenir. The locals have different levels of interest in helping him or his family.
There’s something almost cubist about the way the novel breaks apart time and setting and reassembles it according to our characters’ points of view. But Travelers Rest lacks the revolutionary politics of cubism and ultimately the hotel’s skewing of perspective ends up being a metaphor for a fairly tepid claim: whether you are looking to the future or nostalgic for the past, neither is worth sacrificing the present. Live in the now, man. Really. That’s it.
But if we leave this metaphor behind, we can push forward to a worthwhile finale, where past and present crash into each other and all our characters play out in the way that we knew they would, but in a way that is nonetheless emotionally satisfying. There’s redemption and sacrifice and no real attempt by Morris to act like it’s all going to be okay after events that would, for sure, have long standing emotional impact on everyone involved. It’s a novel that takes a long time to get where it’s going but it takes the emotions that it’s presenting very seriously and so where it’s going is, at the end of the day, a respectable place to be.