Can Miles stop his life from sliding “Sideways” so that for once, he can stand “Vertical”?
Vertical, by Rex Pickett, takes place seven years after Sideways. Miles and Jack have had a complete reversal of fortunes. Miles’s bestselling book, Shameless, which is no doubt Sideways, became a hit movie while romanticizing Pinot Noir and bashing Merlot. His new found Hollywood and wine-world fame and riches has devolved Miles into a shameless caricature of his Shameless character. Jack is now a divorced parent, the result of his continued philandering.
As the book opens we learn that Miles’s mother (Phyllis) is wheelchair bound, the victim of multiple heart failures and a massive stroke. The latter leaving her left side paralyzed and in need of 24-hour care. Wasting away in a home, referred to as Las Villas de Muerte, Phyllis dreams of returning to her hometown of Sheboygan to live her final days with her sister and rascally Yorkie, Snapper.
Miles is slated to be the Master of Ceremonies at a Pinot conference in Willamette Valley. So, what else, he schemes a “cockamamie” road trip to get his mother to Wisconsin via the Oregon Pinot conference. To accomplish this feat, he rents a handicap ramp-van, enlists the help of his now wingman, Jack and a “med-Mary” smoking Filipina aide, Joy. Snapper now lives with Miles’s semi ex-girlfriend. During her post coital shower, Miles absconds with the pup. He sneaks Phyllis out of the Villas and the circus heads north armed with piles of Pinot and vials of Viagra.
Once in Santa Ynez we learn the extent of Mile’s fame, which he equates later as being much like Tom Jones in his heyday, hence the Viagra. After a brief encounter with Maya (from Sideways), Miles begins to question the drunken wine star he’s become and contemplates his future. Along, the way there are plenty of winery stops, a multitude of star-struck women and lots of sex. This time however, Miles is the star while Jack is happy to play second fiddle. Miles and Jack meet two young women from Spain who had come to California just to do the “Shameless Tour” complete with maps to the places made famous in the movie. The girls are convinced to join the caravan for a couple of days in Paso Robles. Once the women have departed for Barcelona, Miles wonders if he has met his true love.
The tension increases as Phyllis’s demeanor alternates between childlike sweetness and obnoxious meanness directed at her care-giver, Joy. Joy becomes increasingly alienated, leaving Miles to mend fences in fear that she will leave and Miles will be alone to physically care for his demanding and partially paralyzed mom. A crisis involving Snapper brings the crew to it boiling point while Jack’s overdose of Viagra sends him to the hospital to be painfully treated for his prolonged and prodigious erection.
The Pinot conference scenes are both funny (crazy large breasted women ripping off their tops to entice Miles and a Two Buck Chuck Merlot filled dunking booth that becomes a bacchanalian hot-tub) and sad. At this point Miles grapples in earnest with the hard choices he must make to resurrect his life and stand “vertical” as they head for Sheboygan. Any more would spoil the book.
Vertical is a funny novel, sometimes dark and thought provoking, much like Sideways. However, in Vertical we see greater character development as Miles’s struggles between the degenerated man he has become and the man he believes he can be. Was it as good as Sideways? Maybe not quite, just because I had a better idea what to expect. Still, it was a very enjoyable read and has the potential for another wonderful wine-filled movie. I did find myself wondering throughout the book, how much was art imitating life? How much of author Rex Pickett do we see in Miles? If I ever meet him, I’ll ask. I’m sure I won’t be the first.