Aspiring novelists are apt to underestimate the price the life exacts from an author. "Writing a book," said Orwell, "is a horrible, exhausting struggle." And quite often writers are as disastrous in their personal lives as they are exalted on the page. One such human tornado is the protagonist of Adam O'Fallon Price's bitter but authentic debut novel, The Grand Tour.
The writer, Richard, is a Vietnam veteran with a drinking problem, some failed marriages and an estranged daughter. The damaged Vietnam veteran is a Hollywood trope, but salable: after a few mediocre novels, Richard strikes gold with a war memoir. Portions of the memoir appear in Price's novel. They are unconvincing, but we later get a good if shocking explanation for this.
Price includes these excerpts because they are readings during Richard's book tour. Hence the novel's title, which also plays on yesteryear's upper-class romps through continental Europe. Yet Price's America is an ugly one, especially when seen through Richard's jaundiced eyes.
Richard’s companion on the tour is Vance, an impressionable 19-year-old who worships Richard for his writing but finds the person an unreliable nihilist. Richard has gravitas, but his writing is the only thing redeeming a life of conventional failure. (Orwell wrote about that too.) He even tells Vance to do something useful, to do anything but write.
The novel thus becomes an extended effort to justify itself against its subject's negations. Every occasion on which a blotto Richard ascends another dais is a grim triumph over human absurdity. He repeats his mantra to anyone who will listen: "The book sold."
Price, meanwhile, is a witty and mordant writer with substantial largeness of heart. He's akin to Frederick Exley, or a breezier Malcolm Lowry. For all the meretricious longueurs about Vietnam, the novel is one of the most believable American novels of the past few years, a kind of On the Road for the lumpenproletariat. Price may or may not be a wreck himself, but one hopes he doesn't take Richard's advice.