So this is a book by someone who’s previously written a successful wine-related road-trip male-bonding novel but for several years failed to follow it up with anything else, about someone who’s previously written a successful wine-related road-trip male-bonding novel but for several years failed to follow it up with anything else. “Everything – and I mean almost everything – in Vertical is a fictionalised version of reality,” the real-life author, Rex Pickett, says of the story. Sometimes it’s hard to know where reality ends and fiction begins, with characters existing in triplicate in different states of made-upness. For example, Pickett has a real-life friend called Roy, who inspired the character Jack, friend of the fictional author Miles Raymond, who in turn inspired the character Jake, star of Raymond’s successful doubly kind-of-fictional wine-related road-trip male-bonding novel.
There is something inherently entertaining about this set-up, the reader forced to guess which of the events in the book are pure fiction, which are semi-fictionalised real events, and which are inherently factual. And it’s a readable story, full of entertaining and unexpected diversions. Indeed it’s easy to imagine it, like Sideways, being turned into a(nother) popular wine-related road-trip buddy movie (though in the final third Jack clears off and the story transforms into something totally different). So there’s that.
It’s also full of characters who sit somewhere close to the unpleasant tip of the asshole scale. None of the key players, least of all Raymond, are at all endearing. In addition to Jack, familiar from Sideways and no less carnally obsessed for the passage of an extra few years, the cast includes Raymond’s mother, a racist antisemite, his mother’s sulky and unreliable carer, Raymond himself, who has gone from being a relatably neurotic down-at-heel wannabe author to being a full-of-himself once-upon-a-time runaway success, and the entirety of womankind, who in this version of reality are puzzlingly predisposed to desperately flinging themselves open-legged at vaguely semi-successful authors. So much so that Raymond ends book signings with “piles of business cards and hotel room keys”, thrust at him by what Jack refers to as “wine whores”.
At one point Raymond gets onto a bus and sits next to a journalist, “an attractive woman in her mid-to-late thirties, with long straight auburn hair and an intelligent face”. They start talking. A page later, he reveals that he is none other than Miles Raymond, semi-successful one-time author. Three pages later, an hour or so after they met, they are “kissing like teenagers”; that night there is “levitational” sex. This is Raymond’s life (whether this is Pickett’s life I don’t know: he has said that this female character is based on a real-life reporter, but that in real life their relationship involved nothing more levitational than conversation). The narrator’s appearance is never really described, leaving nothing to replace the inevitable mental images of Paul Giamatti, the brilliant actor who played the role in the film of Sideways but makes for an unlikely sex god.
When not distracted by levitational sex, Raymond’s world is one of free nights in vineyard B&Bs full of free bottles of expensive wine. “OK, so I admit I told them a little white lie and said there was going to be a sequel and it was coming to their region,” he says. Of course, he doesn’t (that we know) ever write the sequel, but then he doesn’t need to, because he’s fictional and Pickett did. The book ends with a list of all the wineries, hotels and restaurants featured in the book, as if by way of payback for the author’s life of excessive freebies. It’s also riddled with repeated, unnecessary and grating references to real-life brands – in the sentence “I lifted the Riedel sommelier’s glass to my lips” two words leap out for being totally unnecessary – with one in particular popping up repeatedly. “My iPhone rang”; “my new iPhone jangled on the nightstand”; “Bless you, Steve Jobs! Thank God for the iPhone.” There are more. If the author hasn’t been paid for them – and Apple aren’t exactly so desperate for publicity they need to pay semi-succesful one-time authors for mentions – it’s hard to understand his motivation here.
There are also, strangely for a newly-edited reprint of a book first published in 2011, a few editing errors. Most are relatively easy to forgive: the incorrect use of whom, using the word immure (verb: to enclose or confine (someone) against their will) instead of inure (verb: to accustom (someone) to something), but there’s also a baffling sequence in which Jack “shambled off. I was positive he was hoping he would find a dark bar he could tuck into”. Miles then takes his mother, wheelchair-bound after a serious stroke, out of the car and, perhaps 60 real-life seconds later, Jack is magically back again, “sucking on his second beer” and contributing to the conversation as if he never left.
And then there’s the writing, with the author displaying a love of obscure words that has prompted the publisher to appendix a dictionary to assist readers with the most befuddling stuff. But there’s a difference between verbosity and quality, and sometimes Pickett tips into full-blown, downright dolcelatte-level cheese. “The waning afternoon sun slanted through the trees and painted a filigree of gold light over the unblemished landscape,” he writes. “We all found our psyches readjusted with our emergence into this preternatural world. We had reached nirvana, our own collective perception of Shangri-la.” By the end of the paragraph my idea of nirvana felt a long way away.
So there we are. Maybe give it a go if you read and enjoyed Sideways (I saw the film but missed the novel). It’s sometimes baffling, sometimes unappealing, occasionally downright offensive, but [inevitable crowbarring of vague political reference alert] a lot of people don’t seem to be put off by any of that. This one’s for them.