Writing > Vertical


Published: February 26, 2012

Rex Pickett
Pinot Noir
via Ramp van

Vertical is the follow up to Sideways, Rex Pickett's first published novel and the source for the film by the same name. I had been warned off that I might not like Vertical because it had "relationship content". But that didn't concern me. In my view, he was a solid writer and the book would be readable regardless of the content.

I was mostly correct. There were a number of issues I had with the book, but by and large they were not about the relationship content. They had more to do with the post success nature of the book and how that got old fast. That aside, there was a good enough story there to go along for the ride. And given that I have a tendency to not finish most books I pick, that alone says this book was solid.

I'll first talk a bit about the structure. It is exactly the same as Sideways. The book is based on another road trip. It is a structure that works in America. SO why mess with it? It had very much the feel of a modern day "Outlaw Josey Wales" where he starts assembling an unlikely crew for this trip. His first book was a "buddy book" where the trip involved Miles and Jack on a mission. This was Miles, Jack, Miles Mom, her caretaker and the pooch Snapper. And keeping with the Josey Wales theme, in the end it was Josey who was out there alone against the bad guys while the rest of the crew huddled inside a house. Not exactly the same ending, but you get the idea...the lone guy, the crew assembles, then at the end, same lone guy. If it works, go with it. It's not that there that many plots out there.

There are the self referential issues that are integral to the book. Since Sideways was the game changer for the author, there are innumerable reference to that work. it is referred to as Shameless in this effort and in many ways that might have been a better name for this book.

The product placements are everywhere. It is arguably better to make constant references to his iPhone and MacBook than to rant on about how "windows sucks". But it was the same idea. I got the sense that he wrote the story down, then his publicist went out and auctioned off the product placements. You expect the wines and wineries to be there, but there was more. He could just as easily said "smart phone" and "notebook" and not lost any of the flow of the book, so you get the sense that much like The Hitching Post from Sideways, the idea was to glam up stuff he uses. (In Vertical at one point he pulls out an "You eat and drink free for life at The HItching Post" reciept from his wallet.) This was much like an early Janet Evenovich novel where she was typing in AOL.COM every chance she got, poor dear. Who knew AOL would not rule the universe? Yes, there is the problem with that. I get that selling out is the game, but really?

So back to the story, after he wrote it and passed it through his publicist to get all the product placements, he seemed to pass it over to a recent MFA graduate in English. That person then went through and accumulated every polysyllabic piece of arcana in the English language and tried to cram them into the book. I think they succeeded. He does announce that the prior book was trashed by the critics and it seems he is trying to club them over the head by requiring them to pull up an unabridged dictionary before they delve into the book. Hey, to each his own on that. I was reading this at the same time as The Pale King and you can see the difference. David Wallace also goes big on syllable count, but the words seem to fit the environs.

This reminded me of a William Buckley interview where he pulled out a monster word and I think it was David Frost who called him on it "Why did you pick that word?". Bill's response was "Well, true, there were about 10 different words I could have used there, but I picked that particular one because it fit the other words that were in the sentence." Brilliant answer. Exactly the problem with the vocabulary stretchers in this effort. More often than not they are out of place. Then they become overused. Eventually, I just started to skip over them with no loss of content.

The inappropriate vocabulary was the most glaring problem with the book. Next to that was the rags to riches subtext. He does mention that he still has his rent controlled apartment in Santa Monica. When you consider that only Socialists admit to living in rent controlled apartments, you can see where the shock factor starts. Rags to riches really seems to shock the political left. The right just kind of smiles and shakes there head with the thought "That is what America is..." Life in this country is predicted on the idea that anyone can rise as far as their talent will take them. This only seems a shock for some. That is all I'll say about that. And in truth, even Bukowski suffered a serious dip in quality after money started showing up. And he certainly was not part of the commie pinko bed-wetter set. So it can happen to anyone.

The next part of the fame game had to do with the women who seemed to throw themselves at him at every turn. That of course was the role reversal from Sideways where Miles was the hopeless schlub. (Actually, both were considered that in their own way...one friend summed up the entire file with "Those two were such losers!".) Anyway, the idea that Miles is synonymous with Paul GIamatti does make the chick magnet thing into more comedy than intended.

It goes to the celebrity issue overall and how that is handled. Take Anthony Bourdain. Tall, thin, good looking guy who writes a book and does a travel show. And at no point does he indicate that his fame has turned him into a chick magnet. But there is no way it couldn't have. In fact, the chunky guy who has only two super powers (he eats a lot at one sitting and does the super spicy challenges), even that guy seems to have chicks coming out of the woodwork while on tour. So you go one way or the other on that issue. It either comes out front and center, or you take the Jack White approach and say "My personal life doesn't matter, all people will remember me for are my creative efforts."

So once you get past the SAT vocabulary test and the wrassling with fame, its a fun read. The book should be sold with a case of really good Pinot. Because as I was reading, I absolutely wanted to have a glass of wine in my other hand. Jack and Miles on the road sipping wine is as good as life gets out West. And yes, I've been to about 80% of the places they hit on the West Coast. Not on a SIdeways fan tour, but because they hit the same places I hit when I'm on the road. They did noticeably duck the Napa Valley and that was fine. While I like Napa, I'm also good with all the wine regions on the West Coast save Temecula (which is really a wedding region that pretends to be a wine region.)

By and large the dialogue is spot on. Mile's mother is the absolute star of the book. Her words never come out wrong. Jack is almost a good, though there was one sentence where the author bungled it and Jack was using Miles-speak. Miles was definitely the third chair in the effort. Joy the caretaker and Snapper the dog were pretty much the chorus that chimed in as needed.

There were a number of predictable set pieces. When Miles plunked three Viagra's in Jack's shirt pocket, you knew that was a set up. Same with Snapper running in traffic time and time again. The other plot issue I had was the tooth extraction. Not that it was not done by a dentist, but that it was done in a medical facility without an X-ray that preceded it. There were a number of interactions with medical personal in the book and most seemed to be well researched and believable. Though much like real life, I tend to fast forward through the medical stuff as it gets uh, a little more grisly than I like.

I also tended to fast forward through the sex scenes. Not that they were badly written, but it was more the Paul Giammatti link there that made those too farcical to follow. And that is also where the "relationship stuff" ran aground. Good old Miles, who was married, ended that by getting caught cheating, didn't have any kids, etc. And he's now waxing eloquent about someone serious to share his life, blah, blah, blah as opposed to the hot and cold running trollops that appear before all celebs. Yeah, that didn't really play at all with me. He's fine with the money, fine with the fame, fine being a speaker at huge gatherings...but not fine with shallow celebrity hounds. Ok, ok, it is a work of fiction, no?

Quibbling aside, it is another buddy book. And that to me was why it worked. Instead of the two buddies from SIdeways, you get the Three Amigos when you add in Miles Mom. It made for a good trip. And yes, just like in Josey Wales, the end is not that cheery for our heroes. But it was a fun trip to tag along on.

That alone was worth the read.

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