If you loved the novel Sideways by Rex Pickett or saw the movie of the same name, you know the story of Miles, a frustrated novelist, and his devil-may-care buddy Jack. In Sideways, Miles and Jack go on a road trip to explore the California Wine Country. Jack’s about to get married and wants a wild week before he hangs up his bachelor shoes. Miles, down and out two years after a divorce, just wants to drink wine and play golf. Jack manages to create chaos wherever he goes. The strength of Sideways is this friendship between opposites. Sideways is one of my favorite movies and stays true to the book.
Vertical: Passion and Pinot on the Oregon Wine Trail brings back Miles and Jack for another road trip, this time to Oregon. Miles has found success as a novelist and is riding a wave of fame after a successful movie version. He’s getting paid big bucks to talk at wine conventions, and women are throwing themselves at him. Yes, he and Maya have broken up — something that made me not want to read this book. However, Pickett handles the situation well, and Maya makes a few appearances in Vertical. I ended up forgiving Pickett for this and agreeing with him that it’s the right move for both characters.
With all the free wine, Miles is also making a fool of himself and becoming a caricature. He’s all too aware that he’s not working on his next book. Those of us who write and get distracted from our work can relate!
Jack’s marriage has fallen apart, and so has his acting career, and he’s now bumming money from Miles. Miles gets the idea they should go on the road together — Miles has speaking commitments in Oregon. He wants to pick up his mother, who has been living in assisted living post-stroke, and take her to Wisconsin after the Oregon gigs to live with her sister.
As with the first book/movie, all the characters manage to get into some hilarious scrapes. Jack is as outrageous as ever. Underneath the mayhem, though, this is a more serious book. All of the characters except for Mom’s nurse are descending deeper and farther into alcoholism, and there are a number of cringeworthy moments courtesy of Miles’ favorite grape, Pinot.
This is really a story about a mother and son whose relationship has never been close. Near the end of her life, she and Miles are really just getting to know each other. There’s a sense Miles might finally grow up — though we don’t know that for sure (there’s a third book, so I’m withholding judgment). There is a lot of heartbreak along with the humor.
If I were conducting a novel-writing class, I could find a lot wrong with this story. It could be better edited and in particular, Pickett’s overuse of clunky adverbs is a distraction (hypochondriacally, as an example). However, he’s a good storyteller, with an ability to create empathy for characters who by all rights, we shouldn’t like very much. I spent many years around alcoholics, so this is no small accomplishment. And readers who aren’t writers, who don’t know all the “rules” of writing a novel, most likely won’t care. I still wanted to turn the page.
If you like wine, or if you like Miles and Jack as I do, you’ll enjoy this book. Flawed as it is, there’s a lot to love about it.
NOTE: This book is a rerelease. It’s been revised and updated, and some of its original fans are not happy with the changes. Since I didn’t read that version, I cannot comment. I was provided a copy of this book in return for a fair review.
Nadine Galinsky Feldman is the author of What She Knew and The Foreign Language of Friends, as well as the nonfiction When a Grandchild Dies: What to Do, What to Say, How to Cope.