Richard Lazar is a failed novelist and an alcoholic, living in a trailer in Phoenix. But when he publishes a gritty memoir about his service in the Vietnam War, he becomes an almost instantaneous success. Sent on a book tour by his publishing house, Richard encounters his biggest fan: an awkward, depressed student named Vance.
Vance has problems of his own. But when he volunteers to chauffeur Richard for the rest of the tour, the two of them wind up on a hilariously disastrous cross-country road trip, gradually coming to bond as only two misanthropes can. The Grand Tour is the story of an unlikely frienship, and a panoramic view of America from a bold new voice in fiction.
Release date: August 9, 2016
Print pages: 320
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The Grand Tour
Adam O'Fallon Price
Someone shook him awake. A blonde woman blurred into view. He looked up at her, momentarily uncomprehending and depersoned. She was bent close over him, gripping his shoulders with painted fingers, engulfing him in her cloying perfume, a mist of candied strawberry.
“Yes,” he said, feigning full consciousness.
“You have to leave.”
“You have to leave, sir.” The hostile corporate courtesy in that ‘sir’ brought him closer to his senses. She wanted him to leave, but leave what? As his vision cleared, his first clue was provided by the blue tunic she wore, with a winged insignia over the breast. Another clue, quickly following the first, was the rows of seats behind her, telescoping forward to a point where his bad eyes couldn’t focus. It all came back to him in roughly the form of a 2nd person haiku:
Your name is Richard Lazar and
You are on the first stop of your book tour and
You took too much Ambien
“Where is everyone?” he asked, grappling futilely with the thin airplane blanket twisted around his arms like a straitjacket.
“They already disembarked. I’ve been trying to wake you for a while. I thought you might have, that you were—”
“No, apparently not.”
In one violent motion, he wrested the blanket away from himself and rose to his feet, nearly falling sideways into the flight attendant in the process. She stepped back with her hands in front of her, palms up, as though giving plenty of space to a person having some sort of fit. He steadied himself, unwedged his suitcase from the overhead compartment, and lumbered down the aisle, jouncing side to side on dead legs. A friend of his back in Phoenix had given him some pills to take to make the flight easier. Well, they had done that, he thought. Combined with the pint of vodka he’d polished off in the plane’s bathroom, they’d made the flight very, very easy—the only problem was actually getting off the plane.
He frankensteined it through the cabin and up the long jet bridge, and emerged into the fluorescence of the shabbiest boarding gate he’d ever seen. He hadn’t seen many—the result of a lifelong fear of flying coupled with a general disinclination to go anywhere—but this was certainly the shabbiest. Several ceiling panels were half-rotten with brown water stains, and one was missing entirely, providing a nice view of the filth-caked girders above. A darkened McDonald’s brooded to itself across the empty room.
A tall kid wearing glasses, a backpack and the faintest ghost of a beard stood alone holding a sign. R M LAZAR it said in big block letters, each of which seemed to have been laboriously filled in with a Sharpie. He rolled his suitcase up and the kid held the sign to his chest, as though to protect himself from a blow. His fine brown hair was swept in a delicate fringe across a high, worried forehead. Richard assumed the hairstyle was an attempt on the kid’s part to hide what looked like a palimpsest of acne.
“Mr. Lazar?” the kid said.
“Richard. You’re Lance?”
Vance lowered the sign and extended his hand with a look of such dignified, grave ceremony that Richard had to fake a coughing spell in order to disguise very real laughter. “Wow,” he said.
As they shook, the kid took a breath and launched into what was clearly a rehearsed speech: how on behalf of the university, how happy they were, how if there was anything they could do, and so on. He concluded, “… and as the founding member and President of your regional fan club, the WARL-Aux, I just wanted to say that, on a personal level, this is a real honor for me.”
“On behalf of the what?” Richard disengaged his hand.
“The Washington Area Richard Lazar Auxiliary.”
It took him a few seconds, with Vance looking at him expectantly, but he finally got it. “The Warlocks. Jesus. How many other Warlocks are there?”
“Yes, at present.”
Vance blinked at him. “Well, right now, it’s just me. But I’m hoping to expand the operation.”
Richard teetered on his rubbery legs, resisting the urge to look around and see if he was being fucked with. He was struck by a feeling that had become common, almost unremarkable, over the last year—that without realizing exactly when or how it had happened, he had been transported to an alternate dimension. This dimension was similar to the one in which he’d lived his whole life, but at certain moments, such as this one, it became transparently outlandish and far-fetched. Recently, for instance, a man who signed his missives “Sgt. Ricky” had obtained Richard’s address and begun sending him maps of Vietnam with certain cities crossed out. It was nice to have fans—too bad none of them were sane. Or female.
“Well,” he said, “it’s an honor to be here. Which way is out?”
“Oh, sorry.” The kid grabbed the suitcase handle and led Richard through the ambitiously-named Main Concourse, a wideish hallway that featured a shuttered newsstand, a shoeshine operation on indefinite break, and a moribund Subway. A lone TSA agent leaned against the wall and mumbled jargon into a walkie-talkie held sideways.
“How was your flight,” asked Vance over his shoulder.
“I have no idea.”
“Have you ever been to Spillman before?”
“Like so many things in my life, somehow it never happened.”
Richard gazed fondly at a small bank of rental kiosks they passed, thinking that maybe it wasn’t too late to call off the student escort, but they were already pushing outside into chilly damp air, climbing onto a moving sidewalk. Vance walked ahead, but Richard stopped and caught his breath. The overcast sky looked like a dirty sheet pulled over the horizon, the sun a dim flashlight behind it. Everything in the vicinity seemed to be painted gray by the drizzling mist. The sidewalk deposited him in the hourly parking lot, where Vance was already loading a battered Ford Explorer. Its rusty trunk was a patchwork of bumper stickers: Kerry/Edwards 2004, of course, but also COEXIST, Subvert the Dominant Paradigm, Eschew Obfuscation, Bluegrass Players Do it Cleaner, and a decal of the USS Enterprise. Vance opened the passenger door and Richard awkwardly hoisted himself up and in. He looked back at the hand-lettered sign in the back seat and imagined Vance bent over it, pen in hand and tongue in the corner of his mouth. The image produced in him a surge of unwelcome affection for the kid.
They drove in silence on the highway for several minutes, during which time Richard could feel Vance glancing over at him, working up his nerve to say something. The kid took a deep breath and said, “I love your books.”
“Without Leave is probably my favorite, but I’ve read them all.”
“Well, as President of the WARL-Aux, you’d have to, right?”
Vance seemed to actually be considering the question. “That’s true, I guess,” he said. Then, after another moment, “I’m a writer, too, you know.”
“No. I didn’t know that.” Maybe, he thought, he could quietly undo his seatbelt, crack the door, and do one of those stunt-rolls out the door, down the sloping adjacent hill that overlooked the town. Maybe he’d wind up at his hotel.
“I mean, not like you. I’ve lived here all my life,” Vance gestured out at the landscape, which mostly consisted of aging seventies strip malls interspersed with pine trees. “You’ve done things. I like stuff that has the force of experience behind it. You can tell.” Earnest intensity radiated from the kid like heat off blacktop, and Richard had to resist the urge to disabuse him of all the ways he was wrong. They drove in silence for another quiet minute, during which time he sensed Vance drawing another extraordinarily deep breath. Finally,Vance said, “Actually, I recently finished something. If you have time, maybe you wouldn’t mind taking a look at it?”
“Sure,” Richard lied, guessing he would probably mind it a lot.
Keeping his eyes on the road, Vance leaned back and felt around on the backseat and produced a copy box from Kinko’s, which he laid on Richard’s lap. “No rush,” he said. “But I’d love to know what you think about it.”
“I’ll try and take a look soon," he lied again, with deep regret at having said yes to a student escort. Why did he always make the wrong decision? Why on earth had he agreed to this? Why? Well, he allowed, because he’d liked the idea of someone picking him up at an airport with a sign, that was why. Because it sounded like the royal treatment and not a royal pain in the ass. Also because he’d planned on having a few drinks to celebrate his first night on tour and liked the thought of having a driver. Pride, as ever, goeth before a fall. Live and never learn, that was his credo.
The road they were on curved up a hill and the city, such as it was, stretched out in the valley beneath them. The buildings were meek and low, mostly constructed from beige brick, and the overall effect was a kind of apologia, as though the city fathers had tried to create as close to the impression of a kind of non-city as was possible while still, in fact, having a city. The inoffensiveness of it offended him. Phoenix—enormous, desiccated, crime-ridden, meth-infested, golfing community that it was—at least didn’t worry about hurting anyone’s feelings.
“That’s the college,” said Vance, pointing to the left side of the vista, where there were more trees and more beige buildings. “That’s where you’ll be speaking tonight.”
“What is that?”
“Joel Whittaker Auditorium,” said Vance, grandly.
“Do you want a tour of campus? Or I could show you downtown.”
“I heard something about a hotel.”
“Oh, yeah. You’re staying at a Comfort Suites.
“A Comfort Suites?
The room was neither comfortable nor a suite, although according to the sign it was indeed by Marriott. A whiff of sour cologne lingered in the air, the room’s memory of a previous occupant. The air conditioner was on full blast and when Richard briefly turned the dial down to low, the room began to fill with moist, unfresh air that felt as though it were being pumped in from an adjacent men’s locker room. The remote control turned on the TV, but would not turn up the volume. Over the bed hung a disturbing painting of a small girl clutching a pail, alone on a beach with a shadow looming in the foreground. It seemed intended to be the shadow of a dune or natural outcropping, but the perspective implicated the viewer as a lurking predator. To make matters worse, the child in the painting bore a close resemblance to Richard’s daughter, Cindy, when she was young, all blonde ringlets and even wearing the same kind of old-fashioned gingham dress that his ex-wife, Eileen, had liked to dress her in. On the plus side, there was an Andes Mint on the pillow.
He put the mint in his mouth and emptied the contents of his pockets on the nightstand: a handful of unwanted change, mostly pennies; a matchbook from a bar at Phoenix Sky Harbor where he’d gulped down two pre-flight Bloody Marys prepared by a bartender with thinning hair gelled up in a tattered mohawk, like the dorsal fin of a malnourished shark; his wallet (velcro); a five dollar chip from the Apache Nights Casino in Gila Bend; finally, a cell phone that his agent, Stan, had insisted he buy for the trip. He’d never owned one before and had only operated it once, to assure Stan it worked. There was only one number in it: Stan’s office in New York. He was to call whenever he got where he was going, since Stan didn’t trust him and treated him like a delinquent teenager, which was more or less completely justified. He managed to navigate the two necessary buttons, and Stan’s Brighton Beach monotone magically piped in through the ether.
“Richard. Where are you?”
“At the airport?”
“The hotel. The English department sent someone over to pick me up.”
“Some kid named Lance. A real eager-beaver.”
“Well, don’t give him too hard a time.”
“This place is a shithole, by the way.”
“Well, yeah, but the hotel.”
“You’re the one who wanted to save the publisher money on lodging. ‘I can sleep anywhere,’ you said.”
“Call me tomorrow from Portland. Break a leg tonight.”
Waiting for the shower to warm up, he stripped down to his antique candystriped boxers and stood wincing in front of the bathroom mirror. Mirrors were a bad idea these days. His cheeks, over the last few years, had ruthlessly annexed the rest of his face; his eyes, chin, and jaw were a Sudetenland reclaimed by these great twin dictators. His belly’s wide expanse pushed his arms up on either side, giving him the look of an Oliver Hardyesque gunslinger about to draw in some twenties gag reel. He’d always been fat, but his fatness had lately made the genre leap from comedy to farce. At his once-a-decade check up, in March, the doctor had frowned at him over the report on the clipboard—an exhaustive detailing of Richard’s bad habits and inadequacies—and asked what he thought the life expectancy was for a 53 year-old, 100-pound overweight drinker.
“With advances in modern medicine, who can say?”
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