By Alan Gottlieb
Published January 2008
Reviewed April 23, 2008
Originally reviewed in: BookReview.com
Tim Lake, the main character of Alan Gottlieb’s novel “Ultimate Excursions,” is a character with little to recommend him – “asshole” is probably the most appropriate adjective. He shuns all social relationships, drinks enough scotch to fuel a van and is given to ranting after appropriate amounts of self-pity or cocaine. He doesn’t like himself and gives no reason to be liked, beyond being glad your life isn’t his.
Tim’s purgatory stems from a traumatic experience during a stint with the Peace Corps in Ecuador, when he saw a friend fatally overdose on cocaine in front of him. Agreeing to a cover-up by a Corps official, Tim is unable to move past his guilt and spends the next ten years simply existing, living on sullenness and wasting away in low-level reporting jobs.
So why is this life such a darkly captivating novel? Tim may be miserable, but Gottlieb gets deep into this misery to create an excellent character study, detailing it without being melodramatic. A disadvantaged character such as this is naturally opposed to the outside world, leading to priceless scenes such as a horrifically awkward dinner in a housing project and almost homicidal descriptions of his co-workers.
Tim’s life, and by extension the novel, takes a new direction when he is recognized by a former member of his Peace Corps team and is forced to reconnect with people and places he hasn’t seen in over a decade. He finds them turned into new-money yuppies or followers of alternative religions, with families or faiths startlingly different from what he expected.
This change of pace also allows “Ultimate Excursions” to expand in terms of narrative. Tim returning to the real world means he’s forced to interact with others, and like the housing project dinner they are all entertaining settings: a Florida bar with a hitchhiker, a Montana doomsday cult and a climax in South America’s alleys and jungles. Gottlieb loses some momentum when Tim rants to others – with so much inward focus stumbling is inevitable – but the sharp details and reactions more than restore it.
Special mention goes to Tim’s desperate attempts to feel anything, where he embarks on darkly vivid experiences such as watching cockfights on a heavy dose of cocaine and a Frisbee game on hallucinogenic mushrooms. Drug writing is easy to do poorly but Gottlieb’s is adroit, with short fast sentences for cocaine and swirling contemplation for mushrooms.
Though the ending doesn’t seem to provide Tim with full closure, this book is not about complete redemption – it’s about showing what forces people into the lives they’ve made and how hard it can be to break away. The ultimate excursion referred is not across continents, but the journey inside Tim’s head, a journey that makes a moody and utterly enthralling thriller.