January 18, 2007

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Jimi Hendrix Turns Eighty, by Tim Sandlin (Riverhead Books, 2007)
By Nathan Graziano news@hippopress.com.

It’s 2022. Jenna Bush is the President of the United States, and Drew Barrymore is the Governor of California. At the Mission Pescadero, an assisted living facility outside of San Francisco, the residents, composed largely of ex-hippies and former sixties activists, strap on the geriatric gloves for another round with the System, whose oppression they fought against 50 years before.

In Jimi Hendrix Turns Eighty, Tim Sandlin, the author of Skipped Parts and Sorrow Floats, takes readers on an uproarious, heartfelt, and sometimes unsettling journey into the future when the baby boomer generation has become infirm and their children callously shove them into retirement homes. Although set 15 years ahead in time — an author’s note reads “The only thing I know for certain is that this book will be true, someday” — the novel confronts many of the pressing issues of the present in regard to the aging process, the treatment of the elderly and the stripping of their dignity.

The story begins when Guy Fontaine, a straight-laced Okie and former sports writer, is admitted into Mission Pescadero against his will by his daughter, following the death of his wife and a bizarre incident on a golf course that calls into question Guy’s mental stability. Guy is an outsider among the residents, who have subdivided themselves according to the groups they belonged to in the psychedelic sixties, groups such as the Berkeley radicals, the Sausalito party girls, the Haight Ashburys (before and after The Summer of Love). Despite the fact that their physical bodies and sensibilities are deteriorating, the ex-hippies have yet to surrender the credos that steered their generation — mainly, sex, drugs and rock and roll.

After years of mistreatment, the residents of Mission Pescadero join forces to overthrow their common enemy: again, it’s The Man. The Man, in the most immediate sense, consists of a despotic residential director named Alexandra Truman, and a somewhat witless doctor, Dalton Beaver, who uses an itchy script-writing hand to keep the resident tranquilized and catatonic. Following a minor infraction of Alexandra’s rigid rules by one of the residents, all hell breaks loose as the iconoclastic ex-hippies take over the Mission Pescadero and again find themselves in the middle of a public rebellion — this time, fighting for the rights and civil treatment of the elderly.

Sandlin’s main weapon is his humor, one he wields expertly. There are scenes — one in particular where the house band, Acid Reflux, plays a set of Janis Joplin covers, and soon the clothes are shed, the joints are sparked, and elderly are back in 1967 — that are laugh-out-loud funny. However, the humor is not without pathos, and never stoops to banal lowbrow.

Tim Sandlin’s other great strength is his compassion for his characters. Although the line between the good guys and bad guys in Jimi Hendrix Turns Eighty is thickly drawn and the author’s message, at times, flirts with didacticism, the complexity of Sandlin’s characters and the humanity with which he treats them mitigate any sense of a strong-armed moral agenda.

The central questions posed in Sandlin’s novel are pertinent and linger afterward. Why do we continue to strip the elderly of their dignity and their livelihood, in many cases long before they’re ready? And is youth solely a physical entity? The answer to the latter can be found in the spirit and energy that pervades this gripping novel. It doesn’t take many pages of Jimi Hendrix Turns Eighty to realize that Tim Sandlin is the real deal.

Anyone who has read Sandlin’s previous books will find the same accessibility of prose, trademark witticisms and snappy dialogue. For anyone who has not read Tim Sandlin, this is a great place to start. Highly recommended. ANathan Graziano