James D. McCallister

author of the Edgewater Chronicles

Origins and Intentions of Fellow Traveler

Here we have a collection of articles covering various aspects of the novel Fellow Traveler. Beware of [SPOILERS]!

THE LOGLINE

A longtime fan of a legendary rock band investigates his friend’s overdose—or was it suicide, a bleak end undertaken over the death of their mutual idol, the iconic 60s figure Rose Partland? When Z begins to suspect a darker secret behind his friend’s death, he’s forced to reconsider his own fandom and love of the band Jack O’Roses, their shared history with his now-divorced wife, and most of all, the hazy road ahead for a man seemingly trapped by his own past . . . this is Fellow Traveler.

INSPIRATIONS AND PLOT BASICS

The final Grateful Dead concert the author attended, the ill-fated Deer Creek Music Center show on July 2, 1995—in which a death threat on Jerry Garcia, overcrowding in the parking lots, and a generally dark vibe heretofore unseen in the usually gently and kindhearted hippie scene culminated in a kind of mini-Altamont—exists as the original inspiration for the story. Garcia’s death just over a month later would only make the experience all the more bittersweet—emphasis on the bitter.

A more positive inspiration came from two quotes by band member Mickey Hart, one from Jerry’s memorial service in Golden Gate Park, and the other from an interview sometime later that fall. To the amassed and grief-stricken fans on August 13, 1995 he said words to the effect that we should now all take our ‘dead-heads’ back home to our communities and make the magic there, in our own spaces and times. I thought that was not at all a sad thing to say, but instead a glorious and beautiful testament to the way the band had impacted culture in its unique way—I know these days the jam-band aesthetic is derided by a certain hipster and mainstream sensibility, but it’s inarguable that the Dead are responsible for an entire genre of popular music, a way of life for some people, a new ‘sport’ and hobby in the form of sanctioned audience recording, and all sorts of other impacts on the level of creative musicianship and business practices. The Dead spread out like a benevolent, artistic virus that changed how people experienced music, and maybe even life itself: For instance, in my own community I’m one of the job-creators—my wife and I own a small retail business called Loose Lucy’s that, were it not for the Grateful Dead being on tour, would never have existed. As Mickey suggested, we’re making our contribution. And in creative ways too, the culmination for me being the publication of FT.

In terms of the narrative itself, the other influential Mickey quote informed the idea that, even with something as dramatic, and tragic, as Deer Creek had been for me needed to be amped-up in terms of being dramatized in fiction. So, in an interview one day I heard Mickey remark about that mishap-laden final summer tour to the effect that, all things considered, we were all very lucky that Jerry hadn’t gone down onstage during an actual show—his health was precarious for a long time. For ten years, really, since his diabetic coma in 1986. Of course he had good seasons and years where it was clear that he felt well and had a spring in his step.

THE FICTIONAL BAND

At first I’d planned to simply write a book much closer to a Deadhead memoir than the literary novel my ambitions eventually pointed toward. I tried writing that version, portions of which ended up as the book-within-the-book called The Ballad of Jack O’Roses. But I became stuck—it simply wasn’t that interesting for me to recount my adventures on the road.

It came to me in a flash one day: What if I made up a band to stand in for ‘the boys’ as they were so affectionately called? So that I, and a reader, could free his imagination from the restraints of the historical record and ‘enjoy’ a bigger canvas, specifically a more apocalyptic scene in the detailed description of what in the text we call the Drake Park debacle, in which the masses pour over the torn fences like at Deer Creek, but unlike Garcia, the beloved ‘fat angel’ Rose Partland collapses under the weight of the adoration and expectations of her fans. This incident forever undermines the magic spell of Jack O’Roses that’d attracted people like Z, the narrator, and his best friend Nibbs Niffy, who at the outset of the story has overdosed on both drugs and grief.

So, while the particulars of the Jack O’Roses band history, and Drake Park itself, may seem to knowledgable Deadheads to be terribly close to the reality that we all experienced, from the standpoint of the writer the creation of this simulacrum of the Dead made the composition and creativity flow in a manner that merely reporting the facts didn’t.

In any case, the band’s name is the most direct tribute to Jerry, the Dead, and in particular band lyricist, the poet, songwriter, and novelist Robert Hunter, whose words have meant so much to the success and enduring meaning of the music. ‘Jack O’Roses’ is the seventh song in the ‘Terrapin Station’ cycle, a never-recorded piece of music that, with Garcia’s departure from this plane of existence, will remain so—not unlike the final Jack O’Roses concert, forever cancelled, forever unplayed.

INTENTIONS

Like with any decent novel, we want to tell a reasonably compelling story, one with at least one other later at which we can view the characters and events, and that’s where the theme comes in, and subtext, metaphor and allegory play their roles. FT features a key compelling and overarching substructure that is easy to see for the reader well versed in the iconography and history of the band that inspired the story—the ‘grateful dead’ dictionary entry that named this most influential of American rock bands refers to a cycle of folk tales with a plot structure involving a deceased soul repaying a traveler for righting a wrong left in the wake of the person’s death—a debt repaid, something broken repaired, a kindness extended, with a reward of spiritual gratitude in the end for the good deed done, and of peace for the troubled spirit caught in limbo. Without going into plot specifics, this story follows that basic plot, and for obvious reasons.

On the level of character, I wanted to depict a type of Gen X-rootlessness I’ve noted and observed in the culture, a kind of lingering adolescence, a sort of Marshall McCluhan-esque consideration of how mass media has transformed the types of things that people ‘worship’ and follow in almost religious fervor—I could have written a Fellow Traveler-type scenario for Star Wars fans, or about obsessive movie fans in general. I have been all these things at different points in my life; I write from observation, but also from having been immersed in these sorts of behaviors. The long view has given me some insight into this I think, but the narrative here doesn’t dwell on this particular thread, though it is constantly there—Z’s movie references throughout demonstrate the modern sensibility, which is often filtered through these entertainments we experience, how they inform and give our life meaning—I lined up a week in advance to get my ticket for the Star Wars prequel. I used to line up all night for Dead tickets. It’s a ritualistic devotion. I’m sure Joseph Campbell recognized this when he praised the band and their community. At one time I had a direct Campbell reference, but I swapped that out for Tom Robbins instead, which better satisfies the pranksterish element of it all. The book is full of little notes like that, all fairly carefully considered and chosen to reflect this or that aspect of the story.

ROMANTIC SUBPLOT

Z has to sift the remains, so to speak, in the form of his friend’s journals, letters, and a manuscript called The Ballad of Jack O’Roses, which Nibbs—off the road he’s known as Brian, and Z goes by Ash, Tobey, and Z at different times—had planned as the ‘last word’ on the Jack O’Roses phenomenon, a ridiculous and hubristic notion that’s part and parcel of Nibbs-slash-Brian’s larger than life persona of a Jack-obsessed taper amassing the greatest collection of Jack tapes of any taper ever! That level of devotion, which quite a number of Deadheads will most likely recognize in their friends who got into the collecting end of Grateful Dead fandom. Like Drake Park, here Nibbs’s taping obsession is taken to an extreme from real life. Maybe—if you’ve known any serious tapers and collectors (like me), you know his collection covering ‘three walls’ of his room isn’t all that exaggerated.

This element of the story of the romantic triangle had an inspiration in this amusing personal anecdote: my close friend and spiritual brother Dan Sobel, best man at our wedding and person most responsible for getting my wife and me into the band, also accompanied us on our honeymoon—‚the band’s 1990 summer tour, or a big chunk of it, anyway. As Mickey’s comment about Jerry collapsing sparked my imagination, the way we joke about Dan being ‘along for the ride’ made me say, ah-ha—a story like the one I wanted to tell needed narrative drive beyond someone reading a dead man’s papers, so the idea of an actual romantic triangle gave me a kernel of drama to both throw readers off the scent of Nibbs’s actual secret, and also serves as a way to give this tale of the ‘grateful dead’ another dimension and plot thread on which to pull readers through the more didactic sequences. I wanted this to be a book for Deadheads, sure, but also a record of what it was like to fall in love with a big pop culture figure like the Dead and Jerry, and to follow them and love them and be inspired by them. I also wanted it grounded in everyday issues of identity, love, sex, and heartbreak that any reader could understand. That’s where Aimee Pressgrove comes in more so than ‘Sally Simpson,’ Z’s ex-wife for whom Nibbs had his own romantic designs—since the story begins with Z’s divorce, Aimee emerged as a more immediate unrequited romantic foil for both Nibbs Niffy as well as Z.

DRUGS

There are readers who will no likely look at this and see a story that features a narrator who is a pothead and layabout and whose most useful epiphanies come only at the behest, it seems, of transformative psychedelic experiences involving either LSD or psilocybin, and if said reader has a predisposition to thinking that substances like these are uniformly a bad ‘thing’ for the world, I would only ask to look closer, and note the narrative’s defense of certain drugs, and the questions it raises about others.

To wit: I believe that substances like cannabis and mushrooms are organic and natural solutions provided to us by the earth, for our use and pleasure and through which we can gain happiness and insight. For this reason I depict Z’s arc as dependent on these substances along with LSD, though he also demonstrates a healthy respect and distance for that more refined material—refined and handled and synthesized by the hands of men, not unlike the white powders that infect and degrade the scene, and Rose Partland’s health. As such, Nibbs’s abuse of that ‘sacrament’ as Z terms psychedelic drugs contributes to the alienation experienced by the two friends.

In the end Z has found a kind of personal release and satori thanks to the drugs he chooses, but it’s also because he’s gone through a kind of personal expunging of past demons, in the form of his friend and his ex-wife, and of Rose herself, for whom he held enormous love and admiration—as much as any fan, we learn, despite the constant deriding of his ‘bona fides’ by the dogmatic superfan Nibbs Niffy.

This provides another through-line of the narrative, and that is the exploration of the hierarchical nature of human relationships, and a kind of caste and class-system in effect in what I refer to as ‘Jacktown,’ which is the parking lot community surrounding the band, and that springs up outside the arenas and amphitheaters at which Jack O’Roses performs. As in real life, there is here the capitol-F Family, which are the hardest core of hardcore fans, the bus people who literally lived on tour and made their living selling crafts or food or drugs or what have you, and then more casual fans, who are derided as ‘tourists,’ which to a read fan of the band is a drag—a real insult. (These fans are called ‘F-Kids,’ which is meant to evoke the syllabic feel of ‘Dead-heads’, and refers to a derivation fans took from being described in the media as the ‘flower children’ followers of Rose Partland.)

So, I make no apologies for the drug related angle, or the tone, which is a reflection of what I believe and have experienced. I don’t know if big rock concerts are the best places to smoke pot or eat mushrooms, but they constitute these bacchanalian rituals that our culture has developed, and so people get high there, and are sometimes transformed by the experience.

As for the ‘white powders’ so specifically excoriated in the text, my code was akin to the old, unwritten movie and TV code that, if somebody did something really bad, the narrative had to depict the evildoers receiving a comeuppance, righting the wrongs committed. If I’m a strident drug snob, so be it. “A fountain that was not made by the hands of man,” is a potent Grateful Dead lyric (penned by Robert Hunter) and a notion by which we can judge the relative safety and efficacy of the current pantheon of illegal drugs—the worst offenders, and true scourges, are those white powders, those pharmaceutical monstrosities, and the abuse of tobacco and alcohol, which combined account for more human illness and misery than can be described.

IDENTITY and NAMING

The characters in FT are known by different names at different times, most of which are well explained and simply underscore the theme of Z’s search for a definable identity of his own. He is ‘Tobey’ to his family, ‘Ash’ to the general world (the name he chose for himself, tellingly, is that of decay and refuse and the remains of something that once was, not is), and on tour he’s ‘Z’; his ex-wife Halsey, known on tour as ‘Sally Simpson,’ a name familiar to fans of the Who, and a particular inspiration in song for the Drake Park sequence. Where do character names come from? In my case, I like to take them from signs I pass on the road—Brian Godbold, for instance, came out of wanting a very common middle-class Gen X boy name, plus the name of a state trooper that’d been killed and memorialized on a bridge in my hometown. Godbold seemed like a good name for a character with this fervid dogmatic devotion to the rock band. ‘Halsey Bedrich’ came suddenly one day, when I decided to change this character’s name. Halsey had been a customer’s name on a credit card earlier that day at my job, and the last name came because I turned on the classical station on Sirius XM and Smetana was playing—Bedrich Smetana. Adelaide Partland-Sobel—Addie is the name of a friend’s daughter. So that’s how that often happens for me.

As for the narrator Ashton Tobias Zemp, this was a character name I’d come up with a long time ago, and was intended to be used for a character like my narrator, who in this case turns out to be the complete and total center of this story, which at first seems as though it will be about the enigmatic Nibbs Niffy. A to Z is revealed through this character’s journey, about himself, and about the band.

As for why none of the characters truly have a detailed backstory, which wasn’t always the case: As I began to cut for length from the original 700 page draft, a notion came over me that perhaps I wanted these characters histories and personalities to be subordinate to their relationship to the pop culture construct of Rose Partland and Jack O’Roses.

The band: Names come from a variety of sources:

Rose Partland is pretty obvious—like Garcia and the Grateful Dead, Rose is an American original, ‘part of the land’. ‘Partland’ as a name came from listening to Marianne McPartland’s Piano Jazz program on Saturday nights—a grand dame of music, which is how we want to think of the legendary Rose. An icon, however, who doesn’t get to live into seasoned old age. In rock, we burn out instead of fading away, as Neil Young so astutely assessed.

‘Jake Sobel’ for my best friend Dan, ‘Linus Pullen’ meant to evoke the Dead’s Phil Lesh, with Pullen being my wife’s maiden name, ‘Matt Alvin Christopher,’ an uncle and his two sons. So that’s how that went, and meant as tribute and easter eggs for loved ones.

At one point in the text, the narrator Z ponders quite explicitly if the notion of ‘god’ is the right ‘name’ for whatever it is that animates and guides the universe, and from which our essential energies flow—as essential question, an ineffable mystery beyond the purview of this literary text.

THE MUSIC

Like the music about which Z dreams but can no longer hear upon awakening, the immediate problem one runs into with making up a rock band is, how can the reader ‘hear’ the music they make. The short answer is, they can’t. I recall a novel called Pinball by Jerzy Kosinsky I read about a rock star named ‘Goddard,’ and what struck me was a lack of verisimilitude—I didn’t get a sense from the writer of what the guy’s music really sounded like. The rock star in this case was all metaphor, and that’s not what I wanted.

So, like the Grateful Dead themselves, I chose ‘cover’ songs that Jack O’Roses could do, tunes that would be familiar to the expected rock-literate readership I figured would be the book’s core audience. ‘Roadhouse Blues’ by the Doors, that lets us imagine Jack Sobel’s growly singing voice, Laura Nyro’s ‘Save the Country’ gives us a vocal stand-in for Rose, ‘Sally Simpson’ by the Who isn’t played by the fictional band, but it’s referenced for its lyrical content about the ‘disciples’ who all go mad and try to attack their idol with the bludgeon of their devotion.

As for Jack O’Roses originals, I turned to my wife Jenn and her band Stillhouse, who had a number of tunes the lyrics of which suited the mood of this piece, and could reasonably stand in for these unheard, imaginary rock songs. One of the last creative decisions I made was to include full sets of the Stillhouse lyrics to introduce the three ‘sets’ or parts, and the ‘encore’ a/k/a epilogue, and that both set and reflect the mood and action of the various sequences.

The ‘unheard’ Jack tunes like ‘Nebula Rising Suite’ and ‘Saints at the River’ exist as literary dopplegangers for Dead standards like ‘Dark Star’ and St. Stephen,’ with SATR representing the mystical, lost song that ‘St Stephen’ and ‘Unbroken Chain’ were to Deadheads, while also paying tribute to the Ron Rash novel of the same name (read while I was finished the final version of FT), as well as the original source of the phrase, which is of course the hymn ‘Shall We Gather at the River.’

The biggest hole in this regard is Jack’s late-period hit single ‘Came a Day,’ the obvious analogue of the Dead’s ‘Touch of Grey,’ which was an apropos, anthemic hit owing to its obvious meaning to the aging band members, as well as the baby boom generation who came of age in the 60s. In the end, it is probably enough to simply give a version of ‘Touch’ a spin to get the flavor and tone of our imaginary ‘Came a Day’—upbeat but wistful.

ALTERNATE POLITICAL HISTORY

The last great narrative inspiration I had in terms of how to tell the story, and lend its milieu a kind of particular verisimilitude was to have an alternate universe outside of the Jack O’Roses aspect. This manifested as the idea to play what-if and have an Al Gore presidency instead of Bush, but have the same issues like 9/11. This part was fun for me, and I hope not terribly offensive in that we dramatize the morning of 9/11 here, but in a way that I hope demonstrates my own shock and horror that actual morning. That it takes place in 2004, and features a differing but no less tragic set of circumstances, is not mean to show disrespect for the real people who perished that day.

At a time when I felt very down about this country and its leadership, this conceit also allowed me to blow off steam and dream that a better world might have come out of a Gore presidency. That the events occurring under this phantom presidency inspire the same brand of hate and suspicion on the right that Bush inspired on the left is my little way of saying that I don’ t really believe in taking sides, that shenanigans and corruption are endemic to politics in general rather than a particular party.

POSSIBLE READINGS OF FT [SPOILERS HERE!]

One way to look at the story is on the surface, and let it be enough that this is a fictionalized view of a particular American rock band and its fans and a romantic triangle and a troubled love story. On an essential level, however, it’s about Z’s journey to deciding for himself what his life should be, which in his case means [SPOILER] moving out to the desert in an RV and living an ascetic existence and trying to ‘finish’ his dead friend’s manuscript. The metaphor here is that we are never ‘finished’, not until we die. We are sharks—we move forward, endlessly, or risk drowning and demise, and Z’s lesson that he took from the Jack O’Roses experience is to exist and revel in the now rather than the past or possible future, to explode the possibilities of the moment and reveal a true spiritual face, in a state of reasonable grace and freedom from psychological baggage. This influence comes from Eckart Tolle, from the Tao, from Buddhism. You could say that Z’s eventual landing place in the epilogue, besides a resurrected Jack O’Roses concert, is as being in the perfect state of non-being, a very eastern and sacred goal for the person who meditates: a completely immersive and present acknowledgement and direct experience of right-now. That’s really what happens to Z at the transformative ‘Ventura’ Jack O’Roses concert, the one at which he has a psychedelic, loss-of-ego breakthrough—for the first time he experiences total presence and awareness.

The rest of his life, however, is continually decided for him by others, even in the context of his Jack O’Roses experience, which is directed and moved by the persnickety and exacting Nibbs Niffy; his college studies in business instead of english, which he wanted, and insisted upon by his father; his stepmother’s proselytizing her evangelical Christianity, with which he holds no truck or patience; his wife’s driven business ambitions that keep him on the move from temporary home to to temporary home in pursuit of money, eventually on ‘the Eastern shore’ of a great island, on which he walks fallowed farmland as a feckless househusband, with no ambition and no task at hand. Z is depressed at the first because of his divorce, but in the end we realize he could never have become ‘himself’ in the shadow of his capitalist wife’s drive for success, nor could he have done so by following Nibbs’s direction in the Jack world, or his father’s insistence on learning ‘a trade’ versus pursuit of a more liberal arts degree being the best course of Z’s life. He must decide. We all must decide, for the sake of our own happiness, as well as letting the universe guide us through the possibilities and angles unimpeded, again, by baggage and expectations. [END SPOILER]

It is also possible to read this book and its characters in this meta-manner: There is no Nibbs Niffy, there is no Rose Partland, these are constructs Ash Zemp has cobbled together to tell his story of following the quite-real Grateful Dead, that he was the mad taper, that he did all the things that ‘Nibbs Niffy’ did. But that’s a stretch, and I would be happier feeling as though this fictional world was a real thing unto itself, and not an overarching metaphor as just described. Ashton Tobias Zemp—a to z.

Another interpretation: Nibbs was in love with Z more than the girls, and they are both completely gay and don’t realize it, which perhaps accounts for the ‘redactions’ Z finds throughout Nibbs’s journal entries as well as Z’s troubles with his wife, and for all we know, maybe women in general. I don’t feel this thread too strongly, but it could certainly be there—clues include Z’s notion that the highway patrolman ‘will think I’m gay rather than a pothead,’ and maybe a couple more little tidbits. If this story, and these characters, weren’t open to interpretation, then I wouldn’t have done my job very well.

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About dmac

James D. McCallister is a South Carolina author of novels, short stories, and creative nonfiction. His latest novel Let the Glory Pass Away releases in January 2017.

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