Richard Lazar, the protagonist of Adam O’Fallon Price’s debut novel The Grand Tour, is a washed-up, mid-list writer—divorced, overweight, often drunk, with most of his books out of print, and barely in contact with his grown daughter. But unexpected success arrives with the publication of his sixth book, a memoir about his service (and eventual desertion) during the Vietnam War. To capitalize on the book’s momentum, Lazar’s publishing house sends him on a book tour. The disastrous consequences of the book tour are chronicled with humorous precision and deep feeling by Price, transforming The Grand Tour from a comedic road trip novel into a meditation on the relationship between creation, desperation, and hope.
Beginning his book tour in Washington state, Lazar encounters his biggest fan. Aspiring writer Vance Allerby is fleeing from an ill mother, a dead-end job at Pizza Boy, and his own unhappy, stagnant life. In Lazar’s works Vance believes he’s found a kindred spirit and a possible mentor. With razor-like accuracy, Price articulates Vance’s dreams for meeting his idol: Vance “would write a manuscript and give it to Richard, who, with a wry and uncontrollably spreading smile, would read it immediately and pronounce it very good indeed, send it on to his agent and editor with a note about the staggering magnitude of talent he’d stumbled across, get the book published, and thereby initiate a durable, decades-long working relationship, capped by Vance writing Richard’s biography and executing his estate. Or something like that.” Any aspiring writer might recognize such a scenario: specific and hopeful but also clichéd and wincingly naïve.
Of course Lazar does not read Vance’s novel; instead, he literally throws the book into the trash. The next morning, however, penitent and hungover, Lazar begs Vance’s forgiveness. The two begin a journey together. Vance will drive the flight-averse Lazar to his other readings, and in turn, Lazar will not have to take care of himself—a task of which he is incapable.
Why are road trip novels so engaging? In Price’s case, the travelling lends an inherent movement to the book. As Richard and Vance move from one reading to another, their encounters with academics, booksellers, self-interested readers, other veterans, etc., are both significant for their intense brevity but also as parts of a longer sojourn of two lost souls. Restless and roaming, Vance and Lazar must keep travelling on, and, for better or worse, they must stick together. Here road trip novels also promise drama; in the bringing together of two characters in a confined space, there’s no better showcase for confession, self-flagellation, or anger than a car.
One of the great pleasures of Price’s novel is his portrayal of the shifting ground between Lazar and Vance. The relationship between a young man still capable of idealism and an old cynic has been mined before in novels and films. Here, though, The Grand Tour walks the delicate line of sentimentality and comedy, and succeeds because the author is not very interested in having Lazar teach Vance anything, just as Vance—for all of his devotion and respect for Lazar’s work—isn’t going to leave their time together profoundly changed.
Lazar cannot help but self-destruct. Vance, on the other hand, cannot help but apologize for his existence. They are two sides of the same coin; both men, with their eyes firmly trained on their own navels, are incapable of seeing the world around them. Take, for example, Vance’s encounter with a mysterious young woman in San Francisco that concludes inevitably (for the reader) in disastrous near-violence.
Interspersed throughout the novel are parts of Lazar’s memoir, Without Leave. These first-person sections work to balance out the present vision of Lazar. The older man is an almost comically exaggerated portrait of the self-absorbed, self-flagellating straight white male author whose art is an excuse for any bad behavior. But as the novel recounts incident after incident of Lazar’s self-destructive tendencies, often including alcohol, the memoir excerpts work to show where Lazar has come from. He was young, once; he had passion and cared.
The world is a thing to be endured, according to Lazar. “Everything’s a waste of time,” he explains to Vance, “but books are better than everything else. There’s some kind of dumb honor in it, at least. You know what I mean? At least it’s trying, somehow. It admits death.”
Equally important are the passages where Price’s free-ranging third person expands to perspectives beyond Lazar. The author’s daughter, Cindy, for instance, has been working in Las Vegas. Skilled in watching the casino floor for cheats, in her personal life Cindy has made one bad choice after another—perhaps a hereditary trait. By the time her father and Vance arrive in town for a reading, she is debt-ridden and evading a loan shark, drawn to the father she doesn’t really know while, at the same time, eager to dismiss him. Many of her issues, she believes, are the fault of Lazar, who abandoned her when she was still young, withheld his affection, and set her up for a life of unwise choices. With Cindy, Price accounts for the consequences of Lazar’s actions; the old man is not someone to be admired. He has left destruction in his wake.
Likewise, Lazar’s ex-wife Eileen appears throughout the novel. Her brief scenes near the end of the book offer a refreshing break from the hapless behavior of Lazar and Vance. Eileen is a grown woman, professional and mature, wearied by Lazar’s shtick, even as she swoops in to take care of him.
The best comedic writing is used to speak to the parts of life that may be hardest to face. In The Grand Tour, and in Richard Lazar, Adam O’Fallon Price both skewers the pessimistic, narcissistic tendencies we all harbor, and suggests that no amount of mistakes or failures can truly inure a person to change. At the book’s end, the lyrical description soars; suddenly the novel’s landscape is brilliantly beautiful, green and lush. In such a setting, even Lazar “wanted to be good, or better, at least. When he’d had similar thoughts before in his life, which hadn’t been very often, it had been more that he wanted to want it . . . But now he really felt different. The difference was small, perhaps, but it was something.” Such realistic optimism: it’s not a bad place to end a significant journey, or to begin another.
Publication Date: August 9, 2016
Reviewed by Brett Beach