Fellow Traveler: A Rock & Roll Fable
by James D. McCallister
Fellow Traveler is as worthy a document of the latter-day Grateful Dead experience as any I’ve read, fictional or historical.
I think it will work as well for people who aren’t steeped in the Deadhead culture as it does for those who are. McCallister wisely, and wittily, fictionalizes the Grateful Dead, thereby lifting the lay reader over any barriers to entry and sparing us the ordeal of reading rhapsodic descriptions of entirely subjective experiences. McCallister knows that each of us experienced that music and those trips in our own individual ways, and so he refrains from imposing his interpretations on the story.
The story illuminates, lovingly and realistically, the power of the music and the culture that sprang up around it. The mystery that drives the plot is more of a spiritual quest than any kind of caper or drug-crazed picaresque. The protagonist of Fellow Traveler is no superhero; he’s a regular guy, with a biography rather similar to the author’s. His tour buddy, Nibbs Niffy, is a good deal more enmeshed in the “Jack O’Roses” culture than our narrator is. I know these characters very well, and I find no fault in his evocation of them: “…for someone like Brian, raised on TV stars and record albums and the Beatles and media constructs designed to seem bigger than life, the Jack O’Roses experience was better than sex, a living history lesson to which all of us could make our own contribution. I think it was during the shows when [he] most felt a connection to the rest of the world…” You know that guy, too, don’t you? You might even be that guy.
The narrative is sprinkled with phrases from real Grateful Dead songs, making good use of Robert Hunter’s wisdom but never using it to shore up McCallister’s own prose. The writer has a sure hand with the language, a style that avoids florid prose, and a deep grasp of the milieu he’s describing.
“We have only begun to understand what we experienced,” McCallister writes near the end. “Time will fill in the blanks, with a little help from us, the survivors, and those who go on to study what we did with ourselves.” This book is part of that reckoning, and a welcome one.