Do they speak Latin at Caesar's Palace?
Nigel Williams has written a travel book about America. Sara Wheeler asks whether it's possible for authors to transfer their skills between genres; From Wimbledon to Waco by Nigel Williams Faber, pounds 12.99
Saturday 05 August 1995
The trouble with short journeys is that the hapless author is obliged to germinate every seed of detail. Here, even the route from Holmbush Road to Heathrow does not escape record. Besides this, From Wimbledon is predicated on one joke: the self-deprecation of the nerdy Englishman abroad. What this adds up to is an article for Punch, not a travel book. And as Punch showed, people don't want it anyway.
To add flavour, Williams peppers the text with gnomic utterances such as, "American culture has conquered the world by the simple expedient of assuming that it has already done so". These usually constitute errors of judgement (like that one) or truisms (like this one): "American art is a unique reflection of the aspirations of its people." No kidding! And get this: "All European cultures are based on the idea of accepting one's limitations." No they are not. Occasionally, seduced by the slick phase, he achieves the technical distinction of meaning nothing at all. "Americans are like other people, only more so." His liberal perorations on the cultural genocide of indigenous peoples are unconvincing set-pieces and the Las Vegas gambling scene is like flossing your teeth with barbed wire.
Williams has dedicated From Wimbledon to Waco to his wife, Suzan, a gesture which displays remarkable chutzpah as she emerges from its pages as a neurotic dolt who utters only crazed half-sentences and high-pitched squeals. As for the sons, in the Napa Valley he remarks that they are busy re-cycling old jokes in the back of the car, which is a bit rich. But his affection for them is well done, and very endearing.
Occasionally he comes up with an engaging theme. "I, unlike the proper traveller, was journeying with both wife and children, unable to survive easily for long without the comforting stench of immediate relations." But he doesn't develop it. His revelation about his aspirations while climbing in the Grand Canyon is powerful, but it is left suspended like a rope tossed over the rockface. The text acquires texture when Mark Twain marches into the picture - but he soon marches out again. Sometimes Williams gets it right, like when he notes that you usually want to return a hire boat long before the end of the time for which you've paid. And he has one of the essential characteristics of the travel writer, in that he drinks a lot, and writes about it. (Ever noticed that they all do that?)
As for style, let's see Williams taking off from Heathrow. "We were going faster, faster, faster ..." Just as well. Even he would have struggled to spin out three weeks on the tarmac to 181 pages. Dialogue is most effectively deployed in the travelogue as yeast (See Bryson, B. passim). To Williams it is flour, and he lobs it in by the pound. To use another analogy, it is ballast, because there isn't enough of anything else. Take this, when son Harry says he wants to see the Grand Canyon: " 'But I don't want to fall into it.' 'You won't,' I said, 'They have rails around it.' "
What went wrong? Firstly, authorial skills do not necessarily transfer between genres like funds between bank accounts. Novels and plays have plots. Whatever a travel book is, it must have been a pattern in the carpet; either that or be very funny and incisively satirical, like Bill Bryson, who taunted me from the bookshelves as I toiled through this book like a draught of cool water just out of reach on a hike through the Sierra Nevada.
Secondly, it didn't make me laugh. But hey, humour is subjective. If you think it's funny to wonder if you have to speak Latin at Caesar's Palace, From Wimbledon to Waco might be just what you're after. If not, try therapy.
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