After being mistaken for dead by a flight attendant, Richard Lazar is greeted at the airport by a Vance Allerby, a college student who is also the president of his fan club—a club with presently one member. On the drive to the college, Vance wants to talk about writing and share his own manuscript. Richard wants to find a bar. Later in the alcohol-soaked evening it dawns on him that he’s hurt Vance by dismissing his own writing, so he can’t say no when the young man asks to be his driver for the rest of his tour. In his debut novel, The Grand Tour, former Knoxvillian Adam O’ Fallon Price sends the world’s most dysfunctional writer and his greatest (and only) fan on a book tour that is both heartbreaking and hilarious.
Richard Lazar has published a few forgettable novels when he receives the remarkable news that his latest book, a memoir about his time in Vietnam, has become a success. There have been very few successes in Richard’s life. Besides the mostly unread novels, his failures include two bad marriages, an adult daughter who barely speaks to him, and an unhealthy relationship with alcohol. Meanwhile, Vance has his own problems. His father deserted the family, and his depressive mother stays in bed for weeks at a time. He has dropped out of college, a loner buried in books. The two are a match made in dysfunctional hell.
Things go wrong and then keep going wrong. They can’t find a hotel. The car breaks down. Richard won’t stop drinking. Encounters with family members are beyond depressing. At every stop in the tour it seems they have hit bottom, with nowhere to go but up. But Price doesn’t let his characters off so easily; they must play out the version of the world they’ve created.
While this novel is dark, there’s a great deal of humor in it as well, a wit that springs primarily from the jaded world view of Richard Lazar. When Vance’s car breaks down, Price writes, “Richard waved at a passing car, which accelerated. But after three more tries, someone with a sufficient shred of conscience, or else nowhere important to be, pulled over. A very fat man—fatter than Richard, an increasingly rare and gratifying occurrence—got out and stood by his car.” In California, “The next motel they encountered was a dreary cluster of run-down standalone huts called Famous Ray’s. Richard assumed the name was in honor of a locally famous murderer who had done his best work on the premises.” When they finally find a place to camp, Richard says, “This is the kind of place where people get murdered, you know. I’m not saying it’s not beautiful. It’s just a good murderin’ spot. No decent murderer could resist killing someone here.”
In addition to the sections written from Vance’s and Richard’s points of view, the novel also includes excerpts from Richard’s Vietnam memoir, which work as a counterpoint to Richard’s bad behavior by demonstrating what a good writer he is: “I wonder if the following realization is universal to everyone who’s just killed someone: that you are now, and always will be, a killer. It is a very clear line, and once you’ve crossed it, there’s no going back. You can’t unkill someone, no matter how much you’d like to, and you can’t unkiller yourself. For the rest of your life, you have the honor of being in the select group of human beings who have ended another human being’s life.”
Price offers no easy solutions to his characters’ problems and skillfully plays with narrative expectations—readers looking for tear-filled reconciliations and surrogate fathers will be disappointed. The punishments dealt out to Vance, whose only sin is to be a lonely kid from a dysfunctional home, seem especially sad. But Price realizes something that most of us would like to forget: the world is not fair, decent people suffer, and repentance is sometimes simply not in the cards. But, as he also reminds us, even in such a world there can still be hope.
Faye Jones, dean of learning resources at Nashville State Community College, writes the Jolly Librarian blog for the college’s Mayfield Library. She earned her doctorate in nineteenth-century literature at Indiana University of Pennsylvania.