Richard Lazar, the flawed but sympathetic antihero of Adam O’Fallon Price’s debut novel, is, as his name suggests, back from the dead. However, as a fifty-something overweight alcoholic, he isn’t quite restored to life. After years of “mess and poverty and waste and wreckage” (a moribund literary career, two failed marriages), Richard is roused from the doldrums one day with news from his agent that his latest book, a make-or-break memoir about his service in Vietnam, has become a huge success. To capitalize on that success, Richard must leave his self-imposed exile — a trailer in Phoenix — and undertake a nationwide book tour.
“The Grand Tour” turns out to be a riotous, event-filled road-trip. Richard lands a chauffeur in the form of Vance, a student, wannabe writer and founder (and sole member) of the Richard Lazar appreciation society. The pair start off on the wrong foot: Richard is wary of Vance (“It was nice to have fans — too bad none of them was sane. Or female”); Vance is crushed when his idol trashes his manuscript and tells him to give up writing. But as they clock up miles, share their demons and help each other out of scrapes, a grudging friendship gives way to an unlikely but unshakable alliance.
The hurdles and pitfalls Price places before them expose failings and weaknesses. We witness rocky family relations when Richard is reunited with his browbeaten daughter Cindy in Las Vegas and Vance tracks down his ne’er-do-well father in New York. Richard disastrously misinterprets a younger woman’s body language in Portland while in San Francisco Vance gets more than he bargained for when falling for a prostitute.
At other points in the itinerary there are breakdowns (cars and characters); overnights in shabby hotels and presidential suites, hospitals and jails; plus Richard’s drink-fueled readings and interviews, which have us wondering what will crash and burn first — him or his recently revived career.
The madcap on-the-road adventure has been done umpteen times in fiction. Equally shopworn is a novel about a novelist. But at every stage of “The Grand Tour,” Price serves up scenes of fierce and fresh originality. Both jaded, self-destructive protagonist and his long-suffering sidekick are so expertly drawn and pleasingly multifaceted that on one page we find ourselves snorting with laughter at their blunders, the next moved to pity by their pain. In his opening pages, Price relies on prose that is flashy rather than dazzling (“depersoned,” “frankensteined”), but he quickly achieves the right balance and impresses with one coruscating sentence or shimmering set-piece after another.
Interlarding the many tragicomic run-ins or showdowns are excerpts from Richard’s memoir which, collectively, describe “the spectacle of a dumb grunt loosed and lost in Saigon.” Whether AWOL in Vietnam or floundering across the U.S., Richard Lazar keeps us entranced with his wrong moves, warped insight and scabrous wit throughout this supremely assured novel.
Malcolm Forbes has written for the Times Literary Supplement, the Economist and the Daily Beast. He lives in Edinburgh, Scotland.
The Grand Tour
By: Adam O'Fallon Price.
Publisher: Doubleday, 302 pages, $26.95.