Book review: Sideways

In the acknowledgments of his mid-Coastal road-trip buddy novel, author Rex Pickett thanks co-screenwriters Alexander Payne (who also directed) and Jim Taylor for their faithful adaptation of Sideways to the screen.

I'd thank them, all right, but not for being faithful.

The events of the story are, in fact, almost identical, save the exclusion in the film of a strange boar-hunting odyssey (which, ironically, I can almost imagine Pickett thinking as he wrote it, "Damn! This'll be great in the movie!"). There is a strong sense of place in both the book and the film, Pickett is clearly a SoCal denizen who has either logged a lot of hours in a lot of mid-Coastal non-hotspots or he has a keen eye and deft hand for recreating them.

But the film is so much more charming and nuanced and relaxed than the book it was shocking. Pickett, according to his back-o'-book blurb, "is a screenwriter living in Los Angeles. This is his first novel." I know all of us writerly types are supposed to hew to the show-don't-tell maxim, but it's a screenwriter's stock in trade: let the pictures tell the story.

Instead, Pickett's novel is littered with insistent narrative assertions about the characters' smarts, sex appeal, inherent goodness beneath it all and, worst of all, their senses of humor. There is such extensive cataloguing of people's response to quips and jokes and witty one-liners that I actually stopped being annoyed and became fascinated. How many "i"s did this guy feel like he had to dot, anyway? Was this some kind of word-count padding? Or was it possible there existed a writer with lower self-esteem and belief in himself than me? Maybe I have a shot at this writing thing, after all...

The book did do an even better job than the film of piquing my fledgling interest in wine. But the film, with its confident, unapologetic and ultimately winning portrayal of complicated, flawed, but ultimately sympathetic characters, made me want to make art.

I wonder what Alexander Payne saw when he picked up the novel (or had it funneled to him by a minion or agent or however these things happen). Perhaps the answer lies in this archived Elvis Mitchell interview with Payne and Davis from KCRW's "The Treatment." I think I'm gonna have to listen. Sideways, the novel, isn't exactly a sow's ear. But it shares a pedigree with Sideways, the film, which is definitely a high-end jewel, and rare for being so.