Ashley Little, author of the 2014 novel Anatomy of a Girl Gang, which won the Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize and was longlisted for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, goes on a road trip in Niagara Motel, extending the theme of young people on society’s margins that has run through her previous work. Little is a talented wordsmith, and the book begins charmingly, but ultimately loses steam.
Set in 1992, Niagara Motel centres on Tucker Malone, the warm-hearted 11-year-old child of Gina, a stripper. Mother and son love each other, but Tucker desperately wants a dad. Gina won’t say much about the boy’s biological father; to fill in the gaps, Tucker presumes his father is Sam Malone, the bartender from the television sitcom Cheers.
When Gina is hospitalized following a car accident, Tucker is sent to a local group home. There, he befriends Meredith, an acerbic but kind teenage prostitute, whom he convinces to drive him to Boston. Tucker discovers that Sam Malone is not actually a Boston resident, but that Ted Danson, the actor who portrays him, is in Hollywood; he decides his next stop is Los Angeles. Meredith’s (stolen) car dies near Albany, and the young odd couple are reduced to hitchhiking across America, arriving in California just in time for the acquittal of the cops who beat Rodney King.
The plot of Niagara Motel stretches believability, but that’s not its downfall so much as its two-dimensional characters. Tucker and Meredith are loveable but predictable, and the zany folks they meet on their journey – the emotional, woo-laden hippie family; the exhaustingly mannish transgender woman, Dee – are the opposite of interesting, three-dimensional humans. The book leans on them for depth and comic relief without accomplishing either: they are stock caricatures that are neither funny nor interesting.
Tucker and Meredith, by contrast, are supposed opposites, but fall into similar child-character archetypes: tough yet sweet; naive yet resourceful; bearing horror without horror’s marks or scars. Shortly before the two leave the group home, they witness the murder of the one kind adult who works there. After a few pages have elapsed, this particular incident is never brought up again. Trauma can affect a person subtly and silently over time, of course, but such emotional realities just don’t land on the page. The book ends with the proclamation that Tucker isn’t the same boy he was at the beginning, but even this rings hollow: he talks, thinks, and acts pretty much the same.
The only character given any amount of complexity is Gina. In spite of some paint-by-numbers, hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold attributes, she is a delight, and her character crackles and shifts on the page. Unfortunately, she’s not on many of them.
Little’s prose is unquestionably swift and engaging, and the book is by no means a drudging experience. But its emotional arc is too haphazard, unconvincing, and dissatisfying to give it legs.