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First Fiction

October 05, 2003|Mark Rozzo

Tiger in a Trance; Max Ludington; Doubleday: 388 pp., $21.95

You might be surprised to discover that this riveting novel, about an 18-year-old kid who follows the Grateful Dead around the country in the 1980s, is nothing like those amorphous, noodling space jams that the Dead were so famous for. Instead, Max Ludington has created something more akin to a spring-loaded, not-a-note-wasted pop anthem. "Tiger in a Trance," which borrows its title from a Grateful Dead lyric, is a euphoric ode to misspent youth and to a modern caravan culture that has, since the death of Jerry Garcia in 1995, largely dissipated. Indeed, even as this tale of benign wanderlust turns increasingly ugly, there's an ever-present undercurrent of nostalgia for first loves, first drugs and those long-lost days when Jerry and the boys could pull off a mind-blowing "Lost Sailor-Drums-Space-Saint" and set their audience aswirl.

Jason Burke is Ludington's Deadhead hero, a bourgeois teen from Upper Manhattan who is drawn to a life on the road, selling T-shirts for cash and holing up in various Holiday Inns or crashing on the beach in California. Through Jason we discover a culture that is as much classically counter as it is suburbia on wheels: parking lots filled with well-off white kids experimenting with vegan stir fry, Eastern religion, didgeridoos and tie-dye. Jason, it turns out, is a keen observer of the American landscape, offering his Tocquevillean insights (he's considerably less euphoric than, say, Kerouac) as he follows the Dead's zigzagging path from Hampton Roads to Red Rocks.

In Jason's eyes, an IHOP becomes an outsize Fisher-Price toy, and a highway-side industrial gas tank becomes a giant aspirin. Tellingly, his take on shoppers at a Midwestern mall eerily echoes the grooving audience at a Dead show: "Their heads swung wildly from side to side afraid they might miss what they were looking for, which was not a specified item but some vague dreamed-of thing that would complete some circuit of happiness in them."

Ludington doesn't waste our time trying to show why Jason enjoys the fleeting ecstasies provided by a rousing "Tennessee Jed" or a snort of crank. Nor does he present a rosy view of irresponsibility, teen sex and recreational drug use: Jason rubs shoulders with criminals, he develops confusing relations with several young women, and he indulges in a dangerous fondness for heroin. The fact that Jason's father was a journalist killed in Syria suggests that Jason has turned to the Dead as a familial surrogate, but Ludington handles this potentially overwrought segue with Jerry-like nimbleness. As it veers along, this mesmerizing picaresque (and cautionary) tale becomes, inevitably, a long, strange trip; one that, at least for one Deadhead, threatens to become a dead end.

*

The Latest Bombshell; Michele Mitchell; Henry Holt: 320 pp., $23

"It's a scandal we can all feel good about, even puff ourselves up with superiority." So says one of the many Beltway players who populate this devourable novel of hypocrisy, power-jockeying and spinmeistering from CNN correspondent Michele Mitchell. The scandal in question involves the selling of U.S. Special Ops secrets to the Chinese, and it draws Kate Boothe, political consultant, back to Washington from a blissful timeout in Rome. The incendiary case centers on suspected traitor Lyle Gold, a charmless journalist who has already been tried and hanged by public opinion. It doesn't help that our Kate, hired to work spin for Gold, once dated him or that she's currently involved with a dashing Roman named Roberto Picchi, "the most handsome man in the world," whose father happens to be a Chinese bigwig.

What ensues is a spirited account of one woman against the White House, the State Department, the Sunday morning bloviators and the right-wing radio blowhards. There are shrewd allusions to the Patriot Act, Iran-Contra and Whitewater, as Kate, who has excellent taste in alcoholic beverages, encounters layer after layer of resistance to the obvious truth that Gold is merely a scapegoat for a scandal-hungry America. Like Jeffrey Frank's "The Columnist" and Erik Tarloff's "Face Time," "The Latest Bombshell" is a gleefully subversive Beltway sendup and the perfect antidote to a diet of Fox News.

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