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Dead As A Doornail

Grateful it's over

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In the end, praise or scorn for Tiger In a Trance may come down to one's opinion of the Grateful Dead and the Deadhead subculture. Some believe the band was a seminal group of musical alchemists who often approached onstage nirvana, and their fans a cultural phenomenon of joyous free spirits building a better world. Others feel the band was a black hole of mediocre improvisational anti-matter and their fans a cult-like clique of tone-deaf hypocrites too stoned to notice the difference. Both parties will find plenty of fodder for their respective views within the pages of Max Ludington's debut novel.

Tiger In a Trance is the coming-of-age story of 18-year-old narrator Jason Burke, a fatherless prep school dropout traipsing around the country with the Dead's traveling apothecary, and selling t-shirts and acid blotters to get by. The year is 1985, and the Dead are drawing in clusters of new converts. Jason's exploits are an accurate mirror of the highs and lows of the traveling sideshow -- the key issue, however, is whether they make a better tour diary than novel.

Ludington's task is no small one, as drugs and music tend to pose the same literary difficulties: if, as some suggest, writing about music is like dancing about architecture, relating the great panoply of available drug experiences to non-users is like conversing in two separate unfamiliar languages; utter gibberish. The library of writers who've successfully navigated these waters is notoriously thin.

Ludington's descriptive powers are his strong suit and he uses them to capture Jason's highs and lows in often excruciating, but impressive, detail. Here he uses them to nail the elemental synapse-switching nature of an LSD epiphany:

"Whiffs of brightness stung my nostrils as a pair of headlights swept across us -- it smelled like electricity and lemons, but at its core had the same original musk as all light, carried endlessly forward from the big bang: the residuum of creation."

Jason's slide into heroin addiction is also meticulously drawn, but a well-written novel requires more than just decent descriptions. On most other literary fronts, Ludington's story is an aimless mess fraught with beginner's gaffes and lacking the emotional depth of most adult fiction.

This novel falls instead into that category of currently hip narco-adventure stories (Alex Garland's The Beach being the most famous), the male equivalent, if you will, of Harlequin Romances, or Hardy Boys-like adventures for adolescents with a totally gnarly buzz and a slew of hot-looking babes as the buried treasures. Page-turning fun, at times, but a six-pack and some porno would provide the same literary punch.

Ludington, however, is dead-set on convincing us of his characters' profundity by having his narrator quote and name-drop authors (especially Walt Whitman and Jack Kerouac) in a transparent attempt to connect with the great American tradition of the road novel. But Ludington's subject matter doesn't approach that depth, and for every alleged epiphany there are a dozen examples of mind-bogglingly immature behavior that are mistaken here for growing pains and will confirm every Deadhead cliche in the book. Combined with an unfocused and slow-moving plot, Tiger In a Trance is so frustrating, I've made a list:

The narrator constantly reminds us how deeply he's feeling things, when it's the author's job to show those depths through narrative action.

The characters are introduced to each other virtually every time with "hey, dude," "what's up" dialogue that belongs in a screenplay, not a novel.

Cardboard characters - including Jason's "best friend," Randy -- come and go but only as clumsy literary devices.

Jason hypocritically condemns everyone outside the Deadheads' circle for their conformist ways -- "I kept my eyes open, unlike them" -- while remaining clueless that long hair and tie-dye t-shirts are as much a uniform as a Brooks Brothers suit, and that mindless pack mentality knows no borders.

Multiple examples of cruelty -- such as water-pistoling genuinely homeless people in a soup-kitchen line -- belie the alleged peace and love/new beginnings vibe the narrator insists makes the Dead followers different.

Finally, there are Jason's justifications and rationalizations as he descends into full-time drug addiction, mostly hollow attempts to echo William Blake's contention that "the road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom." If Ludington were remotely critical, or at least aware of the irony of Jason's self-centered behavior, he could have added heft to his novel. Instead, he sympathizes with his character at virtually every turn, which leads one to suspect that the novel really is more of a diary, and that Jason is someone the author knows all too well.

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