James D. McCallister, Fellow Traveler: A Rock & Roll Fable. Chapin, SC: Muddy Ford Press, 2012. Softbound, 351 + iv pp. $16.95
The Grateful Dead have always had a serious literary bent, from the Beat inheritance of the band symbolized by Neal Cassady and Ken Kesey to the extraordinarily literary qualities of their lyricists, from Bobby Petersen to Robert Hunter to John Perry Barlow. Deadheads responded with their own literary efforts, from wonderful impromptu parking lot poetry to formal, published efforts in a wide variety of genres.
James D. McCallister’s Fellow Traveler joins the list of Deadhead-penned novels with a fine allegorical treatment of the latter-day Dead scene. Centered on the experiences of several fans of a band called Jack O’Roses, clearly inspired by the Dead, the novel traces these intertwined lives as they navigate a world following the retirement of the band. Memories and evocations of that world during the band’s final decade bring to life a powerful vision of the last few years of the Dead scene, including some of the horrors of the band’s final tours in 1995, especially Deer Creek. In an eloquent and moving afterword, McCallister makes that point explicitly, saying that part of his reason for writing the novel was as a rejoinder to “the gatecrashers at Deer Creek, individuals who, on July 2, 1995, not only ruined what turned out to be my final Grateful Dead concert, but caused what would have been my final show to be canceled” (“Endnote,” p.).
But the novel is far more than an elegy to a vanished scene: the characters are compelling, the dialogue crisp and believable, and the plot pulls readers along without sacrificing the literary flourishes that keep the book in mind well after the climax. Throughout, the nods to Deadhead culture and allusions to the band’s canon are subtle, well placed, and contribute to the sense that the Dead phenomenon, even in its last stages, can sustain high-level literary fiction.
McCallister considers his novel more of a genre effort than literary fiction, although some readers may disagree. Most would place Fellow Traveler alongside Philip Baruth’s lyrical and powerful debut, The Millennium Shows, recently re-released by Kearney Street Books. The acquisitions editor of that press, Gary McKinney, calls Fellow Traveler “a truly charming and deft literary achievement—a magical, captivating work,” high praise from the author of a pair of mystery novels featuring Deadhead sheriff Gavin Pruitt. McKinney’s works, Slipknot and Darkness Bids the Dead Goodbye, follow what is often considered the first Deadhead novel, Alan Neal Izumi’s Dead Tour, published by Relix magazine in 1988, although McKinney’s are not set in the Deadhead milieu, which provides the context for Izumi’s narrative.
McCallister’s Deadhead bonafides are impeccable: a taper and later Shakedown Street vendor, he went on to become co-owner of a Deadhead shop, Loose Lucy’s, originally one of a chain of six such shops and now the last. Located in Columbia, Loose Lucy’s continues to provide South Carolina Deadheads with a sense of continuity and connection, even seventeen years after Garcia’s death and the retirement of the band. Some of Fellow Traveler was written while McCallister manned the shop, where I would often visit him when Columbia was still my home base. (Full disclosure: McCallister acknowledges my friendship in the “Endnote” of the book, and I had the pleasure of reading drafts of Fellow Traveler as it went through a number of revisions before settling into its final, published form.)
Fans who came to the Dead phenomenon following Garcia’s death will find Fellow Traveler to be a fine evocation of the last years of the scene, just as scholars studying the broader literary aspects of the Deadhead experience will need to spend time with McCallister’s story. With more and more books devoted to the band and phenomenon appearing, it is important for scholars and thoughtful fans to also consider the fictional treatments that often limn and illuminate the most telling but often hidden currents that informed the Deadhead experience. For scholars, Fellow Traveler helps chart the cultural diffusion of the Grateful Dead phenomenon and the Deadhead experience—and for readers, it’s simply a fine read.
~ Nicholas Meriwether, Grateful Dead Archivist