The traveling sixties theme park that was the Grateful Dead tours operated pretty continuously from 1966 to guitarist Jerry Garcia’s death in 1995, a civilization built on T-shirts. What a surprise, then, to see such a hard-edged, unsentimental book emerge from the tie-dye vat. Tiger in a Trance, Max Ludington’s oddly-named first novel (the phrase is from the Dead’s “Saint of Circumstance”), with its blotter-acid jacket, is actually a work of clear-eyed realism in psychedelic disguise.
As the book begins, in 1985, Jason Burke, a prep-school dropout, is about to graduate to LSD dealing—the highest caste of his fellow tourheads. These are rich kids, for the most part, cubs exploring their new freedom, trying on new credos and haircuts. Predators—parents, cops, private detectives—lurk ominously, adding adult consequences.
Ludington has a wonderful ear for freak-speak (“Some fine traveling . . . powerful places,” says a wooly-haired fellow named Judah the Sadhu, who sports a backpack made from the shell of a giant sea turtle) and a glittering descriptive quiver. He makes delightful set pieces out of the refineries alongside the New Jersey turnpike (“with million-gallon white tanks grouped at their edges like mammoth aspirins. I thought of the leviathan hangovers they would be needed for”) or watching his girlfriend eat her pancakes at an IHop (“her long bulging lips slid from side to side and moved in unpredictable esses, salamanders, the front edge of a bird’s wing”). Sexually, Jason is annoyingly successful—at one point, he sprains his tongue—but the writing is vivid without being pornographic, which is a feat.
Ludington, who’s 35, is from an old Philadelphia Mainline family (His poor parents! one keeps wanting to say). Much of the book seems designed to establish that Jason’s rebellion is something of a family tradition. His father was a globetrotting journalist who was executed in Syria on suspicion of being a spy; his mother had her own period of youthful glamour and sexual freedom (Jason’s father stole her from his best friend, Harry, who’s now a rich, avuncular, cynical presence in Jason’s life). Jason’s road-tripping isn’t so much a desperate escape as an elective, a young-adult-ed course with its own well-thumbed syllabus: Kesey, Hunter Thompson, Kerouac, Whitman.
These aren’t rebels. They don’t think it’s evil to live in the straight world—just clueless, something that other people do. In the hinterlands, they’re long-haired angels descending to bring enlightenment to the locals in the form of a bud of Indica, or a hit of LSD. Jason is too wised-up to think that the road leads anywhere. He knows transcendence, sexual or narcotic, is temporary. They don’t feel they’re piping something done better in the sixties, or waiting for some second coming. Utopia is a way of passing the time.
Of course, someone’s got to pay for this make-believe economy. Besides the looted stereos and trust funds, there is an appallingly high cost in parental misery. Jason toys with his guilt, rationalizes it, checkmates it before it can trap him.
A large problem with the literature of substance abuse is that it’s difficult to find resolutions that equal the crescendos that narcotics predictably produce. This book actually gets less interesting when stuff starts to happen. Heroin appears halfway through the novel and real danger arrives with it.
Ludington doesn’t shrink from the hypocrisy (there’s Whitman again) and self-delusion that accompany the maintenance of this utopia. An ecstasy dealer—a homely girl who loved Jason—is sent to prison for seventeen years, ratted out by a friend; Jason shrugs it off, yet another thing that’s sad and hidden. A friend dies of aids; another is blasted with a shotgun. The dude with the turtle-shell backpack dies tripping, having made the bonehead error of trying to breathe underwater through his didgeridoo. Oops. In a book like this, recovery is bound to rear its ugly head. But Ludington doesn’t condescend to Jason’s adventures by making it the main event.
Jason’s coldness is slightly frightening. He welcomed his father’s death, as a kind of official introduction to the Real World. It’s a thrilling confession—he has no excuse; he’s not depraved on account of being deprived—but this same emotional frigidity makes him hard to care about. The parental subplot feels forced, Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn suddenly dropping into a River Phoenix vehicle.
But Tiger in a Trance seems destined to be a kind of classic. No one has gotten closer to the beauty and loneliness of the drug culture, where everything, finally, is about coming down.