- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 17, 2007


By Tim Sandlin

$24.95, 320 pages


Tim Sandlin insists “Jimi Hendrix Turns Eighty” will come true someday, but suspend disbelief for a moment anyhow. The year is 2022 — the year Hendrix, were he alive, would turn 80.

Guy Fontaine, a 72 year-old widower, who spent most of his life in Oklahoma but ended up in California, drives a golf cart onto the freeway thinking he’s back home. Police pull the former sportswriter over, and his daughter puts him in Mission Pescadero, an assisted-living home outside San Francisco.

Aging hippies fill Mission Pescadero. Though most led ordinary lives between the 1960s and retirement, they’ve reverted to their old selves, complete with drugs, Viagra-fueled orgies and a rock band called Acid Reflux.

Meanwhile, the country has taken an authoritarian turn, especially with regard to the elderly. It’s easier than ever to declare old folks incompetent and steal from them. Crooked doctors play along, medicating patients into docility and pouncing quickly when Guy — after spending only one night at the home — forgets his room number. The incident confirms he has “multi-infarct dementia,” though he’s only hallucinated once.

Worst of all, administrator Alexandra Truman runs the home like it’s a day care, tattling to the residents’ children at any sign of “misbehavior.” When she finds out one man kept a cat against the rules, she evicts him, but that process takes time. The cat has to go right away.

All hell breaks loose when Guy attacks the animal control agent.

The hippies take over the home, and the cat’s part-American Indian owner changes his name from Henry to Sioux. Henry-now-Sioux hopes the switch will “change his outlook,” Mr. Sandlin informs readers, but the war paint just scares the character’s rescued feline.

Alexander and another staffer become hostages, and an old-time standoff ensues. Local police lieutenant Cyrus Monk, son of a Vietnam vet, specifically chose to work in the area to vent his hatred of hippies.

A ridiculous plot to be sure. Run it past a friend, and you’ll probably hear something like “that sounds really stupid.” But somehow Mr. Sandlin pulls it off, creating a bizarre mix between 1960s idealism, the aging process a la Tuesdays With Morrie and 1984-style bureaucratic oppression. With some killer twists.

The prose sings, evoking imagery with vivid description. A sense of urgency propels the story forward, with pervasive use of present tense. Those who missed the Sixties discover that “the cardinal mistake of LSD” is looking in a mirror. (One sees “without the filter of self.”) It’s not a difficult read.

For example, Mr. Sandlin tells the fantasized joyride from Guy’s perspective, creating one of the book’s most interesting passages (italics in original):

“He was both surprised and pleased by how well his 1958 Bel Air purred along the highway. The clunk in the transmission had healed itself, and the vinyl car seat felt warm in the sunlight. The radio was playing KOMA Oklahoma City, a song about a man named Big Bad John. He should reach the Red River soon. He thought he might take off his shoes and socks and walk in the dry riverbed. It seemed like that kind of a day.”

In the book, Mr. Sandlin avoids sweeping political statements for the most part, content with poking fun at the idea of 80-something hippies. But there are some valuable insights behind the humor.

Misuse of the incompetence declaration, not surprisingly, comes up often. So does the privacy absent in nursing homes. The characters here value dignity and freedom above all else, and no matter how often they forget where they are and start an anti-Vietnam chant, the message comes through.

Though the book exaggerates these problems (it is, after all, the future), the emotions read realistically. As the publisher’s press release repeatedly tells journalists, Mr. Sandlin wrote much of the story as his own father developed dementia.

There are some problems here, though, not the least of which is the constant and somewhat detailed geriatric sex. There are some things readers just don’t need to know.

Also, Mr. Sandlin doesn’t take nearly as much liberty as he could with his futuristic setting. It’s true personal spacecrafts would be too much for 2022, but communicating by “fiber optics” and “hologram imaging” hardly shows much thought.

Even with current events and popular culture, the writer demonstrates little imagination; most of the time he just slaps some Roman numerals on today’s news. There’s “Star Wars XIV” and “Survivor XXXIX.” Jenna Bush (at least Bush IV, after Jeb) presides over Gulf War VI. Britney Spears still graces magazine covers, albeit Modern Maturity instead of Newsweek.

Nevertheless, to Mr. Sandlin’s credit, he does fill some gaps between now and 2022. The year 2007 brings massive demonstrations to Gdansk, Seattle, Guatemala City, Havana and Cape Town (one future Mission Pescadero resident attends all of them). Cape Town sees trouble again in a decade. There’s also the “tainted alligator clip crisis of 2015,” where, apparently, a newspaper editor opened a harmful package.

The author also details what heaven is like:

“No one is there to meet [the character] at the gate. No Welcome Wagon. No maitre d’. No guy in a choir robe balancing sins against righteous deeds. Mostly, it looks like a million card tables, each seating four women in sundresses and men in silk pajamas.”

A friend soon informs the deceased that “[t]here’s different departments for different ideas of death. It comes down to whatever you thought heaven would be like, you know, down below.”

Bottom line: “Jimi Hendrix Turns Eighty” demands a reader who can let go, but not as much as one might expect. Mr. Sandlin makes the absurd believable and delivers a fast-reading, funny and thought-provoking work.

Robert VerBruggen is incoming Assistant Book Editor at The Washington Times.

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