Vertical, by Rex Pickett, is a funny, sad, sexy, depressing, curious and at times bravely comic novel tailored especially for men and women who like to drink wine. The novel, published originally some years ago but updated and released in a new edition in 2016 by Loose Gravel Press, is the sequel to Sideways, Pickett’s first novel upon which the 2004 hit movie was based.
Sideways, both the novel and film, followed the comic misadventures of Miles and Jack, who drank and screwed their way around the Santa Ynez Valley in California’s Central Coast wine region. Fans of Sideways will be pleased to learn that Miles and Jack are back at it in Vertical, drinking and screwing aplenty. Although the novel’s subtitle suggests that the twosome do all their carousing on “the Oregon Wine Trail,” this is somewhat deceiving. While they do tarry, a bit, at a pinot festival in the Willamette Valley, they also pass through such places as (naturally) Santa Ynez Valley, Fresno, Clear Lake, and on the road to Wisconsin, a state better known for its cheese than its wine.
Besides his novels, Pickett is a screenwriter (although he did not write Sideways the movie), and Vertical has a “Little Miss Sunshine” quality to it, as Miles’s wheelchair-bound Mom, her pot-smoking Filipino maid, and a star-crossed dog named Snapper join the boys in their often-amusing wine-soaked, sex-soaked romps. It would be similarly deceiving, however, to describe the book as “a romp.” There is too much serious stuff going on here for that, as Miles (and Jack, to a degree) must deal with the very somber, very depressing end of life issues facing his mother.
Vertical, like Sideways, is semi-autobiographical; the action takes place after the movie has come out and its phenomenal success has paid off handsomely for Pickett aka Miles, who has become a minor celebrity, raking in book royalties and lucrative fees for making personal appearances at wine events. Jack, meanwhile, is now divorced and fallen on hard times. He takes a back seat in the novel to his perpetually downbeat friend whose Eeyore-like personality is not, to my tastes, nearly as entertaining as Jack’s Randall Patrick McMurphy. Even Miles’s mother gets fed up with her son at one point, telling him, “Oh for God’s sake, Miles, stop being so neurotic. Get over it and live your life.”
Is there wine in Vertical? Yes, aplenty. As well as the expected hosannas for pinot noir, Miles’s favorite grape, and put-downs of his bête-noire, merlot. (Unsolicited advice for Miles/Rex: Open up, my man! There are many fine varietals besides pinot.) But, for me, the novel is less about being an oenophile and more about one man’s effort to come to grips, in an entertaining and commercial fashion and yet also honestly, thoughtfully and sometimes painfully, with the fundamental currents of his life: his mother, his best friend, women, sex, relationships, drinking and writing. In this respect, Vertical is a success. —Kevin Nelson