Vertical -- Book Review

"Sideways," starring Thomas Haden Church (left) and Paul Giamatti, won the adapted screenplay Oscar in 2005.
The future adventures of "Sideways" characters Miles and Jack find its original author, Rex Pickett, reclaiming not only his own story from the hit film but striking out in a bold -- and sober -- new direction.

Before Sideways was a hit film from director Alexander Payne in 2004, it was a novel by a relatively unknown screenwriter named Rex Pickett. The success of that comedy and subsequent enthusiasm of his publisher turned Pickett into a celebrity among wine enthusiasts — to say nothing of California Central Coast winemakers, who thrilled at the surge in tasting-room visits and sales of the protagonist’s favorite wine, Pinot Noir.

So quite unexpectedly, this down-and-out screenwriter, who didn’t get his book published until the movie was being made, fell into the lap of the bitch-goddess of fortune and fame. I well remember running into him at the Paso Robles Zin Fest the following year, when he served as guest of honor and autographed copies of his novel at Justin Winery, a scene he re-creates in his new novel, Vertical.

As you might gather, Vertical is a sequel to Sideways. It follows the further adventures of Miles and Jack, his wayward companion in debauchery, womanizing and wine-guzzling. This time the boys drive through the scenes of their earlier notoriety in the vineyards of Santa Ynez Valley to head for the International Pinot Noir Celebration in McMinnville, Ore., a state whose Pinots can compare with any in the world including Burgundy’s.

What must be said before assessing Vertical as a novel and, of course, a potential movie sequel, is that the Sideways novel and movie version — adapted by Payne and writing partner Jim Taylor — are different animals. Payne and Taylor selected choice scenes and character traits from the book to craft a sad-funny comedy about a pair of lovable losers who are often their own worst enemies.

Pickett’s comedic sense is rougher and cruder when it comes to his male characters. He shares a sense of humor with Blake Edwards: There is pain in their comedy. A guy doesn’t simply slip on a banana peel; he breaks his damn leg. For instance, in Vertical, Jack’s overdose of Viagra while drunk in the sack with a hot babe results in a terrifying case of priapism. This results in a trip to the ER that would make horror-film buffs blanch.

In the new book, Pickett exploits three parallel worlds: the novel, the movie and his own life. Miles, whom Pickett clearly sets forth as an alter ego, is forever marveling at his sudden celebrity. Women want to bed him, and cases of hard-to-find, expensive Willamette Valley Pinots pile up in his hotel rooms, sent by wineries hoping for product placement in the sequel to Shameless, the novel the fictional Miles wrote.

“Okay, 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,” Miles says. And yet here is Pickett’s sequel, and here indeed are mentions of those wines, hotels and even real-life person that Miles — sorry, Rex — deems meritorious.

In a telling passage in this first-person narrative, Miles — Rex — muses: “Sometimes reality and fiction got so intertwined in my wine-addled memory I couldn’t tell if I was coming or going. Lying or not lying.”

The latter two sentences announce his new theme: How does a wine-addled novelist untangle the deeply entwined threads of these worlds so he goes from sideways (drunk) to vertical (sober and functioning again creatively)?

The novel’s road trip puts four decidedly troubled human beings, plus a dog, into Miles’ rental rampvan heading for the Pinot festival. Along with Miles, rolling in dough, and Jack, now divorced and so permanently pickled he can no longer get directing work in Hollywood, are Miles’ stroke-addled mother, Phyllis; her pot-smoking Filipina nurse, Joy; and his mom’s Yorkie, Snapper. Miles’ ill-fated scheme is to snatch his mom from the Southern California assisted-living facility she hates and take her, via Oregon, to her sister’s home in Wisconsin. While Miles and Jack wind up in beds with voracious women and in bottles neither could afford until recently, the trip is a disaster from the get-go.

But Pickett doesn’t build his narrative through conflicts so much as unexpected sequences of the grotesque such as the dog-napping of Snapper from Miles’ ex-girlfriend, Phyllis’ bout with rampaging diarrhea, Jack’s ER visit, a tooth extraction and a dunking contest that deposits Miles in a vat of Merlot, where he is attacked by sex-crazed female fans.

At the core of the many mishaps is the now-unmistakable fact that Miles is an alcoholic. His decision-making is severely impaired. This was evident in Sideways, but there the drinking was more the subject of comedy. Vertical makes clear that Miles comes from a family of drunks and loners. Phyllis tipples Chardonnay any chance she gets, her late husband was dishonorably discharged from the Air Force for a drunken episode, and a brief visit to an uncle finds him propped up by a pint of vodka.

Miles and his mother have never been close. Indeed, no one in his family has much use for family ties. Yet Phyllis might prove Miles’ salvation.

Vertical is a real change in direction from Sideways. The latter is a classic buddy story, the new novel a mother-and-son story. Pickett is no prose stylist, but his character depictions are ruthlessly vivid and clear.  Everyone is the captain of his or her own fate; blame belongs where it belongs, which is not on bad fathers, absent mothers or demanding ex-wives.

In the last chapters, as the journey heads from Oregon to Wisconsin, you sense the writer, clear-headed and determined, narrowing his focus on Miles and his mother. He insists they better understand each other and resolve a lifetime of distrust and hurt feelings. These passages contain the most powerful writing in the book.

The novel’s final note might spark controversy, but not here. The ending makes perfect sense; it’s one of supreme compassion and renewed hope.

So were a film sequel to come from Pickett’s new novel, it would have to play less like Payne’s Sideways and more like Edwards’ darker Days of Wine and Roses.