Just one of many drole observations from Miles Raymond in Rex Pickett's Sideways, a novel I've been meaning to comment on for some time now.
In the afterword the author offers "bottomless gratitude to Alexander who, with his talented writing partner, Jim Taylor, faithfully adapted it for the screen". I wonder if Pickett really thinks the adaptation was faithful? There are a number of significant points of infidelity, some of which are worth mentioning here. In the novel for example...
- Miles and Jack are about ten years younger. These aren't men in the midst of the menopause, they are more like siblings of Roger Dodger, self-destructive thirtysomethings letting go of the rudder. (Indeed one of Miles' unpublished works of fiction was called Circling the Drain.)
- Jack however is a harder-edged, more successful character, a TV and Film producer rather than a bit-part actor.
- Both are psychographically LA residents, not denizens of San Diego. This is important because long-term exposure to phoneyness has clearly fed Miles' pathology.
- Jack offers Maya incentives to bed Miles. Sexual politics are more pronounced in the text.
- This is one of many incidents that tests their male-to-male bonding, a theme that is also more to the forefront.
- There's a sub-plot involving a critterman and a trip to Hearst Castle which they rate as a "cool crib".
- The story is told from Miles' viewpoint. In a sense this may be the book that the trip produced, but Pickett doesn't obviously develop this. There's not enough evidence of later reflection to back this up.
- You get the feeling that Pickett saw Miles as one of those guys who is more mainstream and attractive than he gives himself credit for.
And importantly Miles isn't a teacher that happens to also be a failed novelist, he's a serial failed novelist that has now arrived "at the final frontier of impecuniousness and artistic failure." His situation is rooted in a suspicion of facade and a failure to conform: "I don't do formula". This is a "high maintenance, low yield" posture of rebellion leading inexcorably to self-loathing, but also a profound aversion to "blending varietals", individuals that do have access to a lifelong formula for fitting in and moving forwards whatever other compromises that involves: "The Chard-swilling masses".
The title clearly refers to the sense that Miles has that he has ceased to progress along the track, and now no longer even understands the track itself or the other people on it. But early on in Pickett's novel I learned that in California slang, sideways also specifically means smashed, sloshed, shitfaced, etc. And this is where the two meanings meet, because Miles characterises his social life as "getting hammered every Friday night and unburdening yourself to people that you thought were your friends."
The red stuff consistently delivers the "beautiful buzz" but Miles acknowledges that it can also be a "cruel mistress in the morning". Something fleshier is thus also required. "We need to find an oasis of womanhood, otherwise we will wither on the vine". Seen through Miles' eyes however, these oases turn out to be little more than wine-snob fantasy objects. After pouring Pinot Noir over Maya as an act of foreplay Miles declares "this was the only time in my life that spirit and flesh had merged in transcendental oneness."
Yet the character of Maya is a clear example of one of the elements of the story where Payne and Taylor added some spirit to the flesh in their Oscar-winning screenplay. And taking full advantage of the ability to show us Miles and Jack depth was then added to their personalities paradoxically by culling much of the complexity and detail that Pickett had worked into these characters, and also by shearing off some of the unnecessary sub-plot. 'Realism' has been reduced or at least constrained, and the end result is that the simplified characters and themes are more immediately striking.
However, before tackling the novel I had an opportunity to re-visit the movie on a United flight and found it oddly less involving. On reflection I concluded that this is one of those stories where the location should be on the cast list, but on a tiny aircraft screen you miss out a bit on the evocation of place that's at the heart of both novel and film. (Such was Payne's success in calling forth the delights of the Santa Ynez Valley that fans have been flocking to The Hitching Post and pinching the napkins since the film's release!) These are characters that need a bit of air around them. They also need to be allowed to swear!