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

Successful comic novelist and playwright goes on holiday to the United States with wife and three teenage sons. (Didn't go to Waco and doesn't live in Wimbledon, but it's not important). Languishes in LA jacuzzis next to Hockney-blue pools, visits Universal Studios, Hopi reservations, Grand Canyon et cetera, places one chip on Vegas gambling table and heads east to verdant New England and fetid New York. No problem so far. But then he wrote a book about it.

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.

Arts and Entertainment
Keith from The Office ten years on

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams prepares to enter the House of Black and White as Arya Stark in Game of Thrones season five

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Albert Hammond Junior of The Strokes performs at the Natural History Museum on July 6, 2006 in London, England.

music
Arts and Entertainment
Howard Mollison, as played by Michael Gambon
tv review
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush in The King's Speech

The best TV shows and films coming to the service

tv
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift won Best International Solo Female (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Shining star: Maika Monroe, with Jake Weary, in ‘It Follows’
film review
Arts and Entertainment

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith arrives at the Brit Awards (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn's beheading in BBC Two's Wolf Hall

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Follow every rainbow: Julie Andrews in 'The Sound of Music'
film Elizabeth Von Trapp reveals why the musical is so timeless
Arts and Entertainment
Bytes, camera, action: Leehom Wang in ‘Blackhat’
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Libertines will headline this year's festival
music
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Dean Anderson in the original TV series, which ran for seven seasons from 1985-1992
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Muscling in: Noah Stewart and Julia Bullock in 'The Indian Queen'

opera
Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TVViewers predict what will happen to Miller and Hardy
Arts and Entertainment
Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright in season two of the series

Watch the new House of Cards series three trailer

TV
Arts and Entertainment
An extract from the sequel to Fight Club

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant, Eve Myles and Olivia Colman in Broadchurch series two

TV Review
Arts and Entertainment
Old dogs are still learning in 'New Tricks'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
'Tonight we honour Hollywood’s best and whitest – sorry, brightest' - and other Neil Patrick Harris Oscars jokes

Oscars 2015It was the first time Barney has compered the Academy Awards

Arts and Entertainment
Patricia Arquette making her acceptance speech for winning Best Actress Award

Oscars 2015 From Meryl Streep whooping Patricia Arquette's equality speech to Chris Pine in tears

Arts and Entertainment

Oscars 2015 Mexican filmmaker uses speech to urge 'respect' for immigrants

Arts and Entertainment
Lloyd-Hughes takes the leading role as Ralph Whelan in Channel 4's epic new 10-part drama, Indian Summers

TV Review

The intrigue deepens as we delve further but don't expect any answers just yet
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Segal and Cameron Diaz star in Sex Tape

Razzies 2015 Golden Raspberry Awards 'honours' Cameron Diaz and Kirk Cameron

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

    Climate change key in Syrian conflict

    And it will trigger more war in future
    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
    Is this the way to get young people to vote?

    Getting young people to vote

    From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot
    Poldark star Heida Reed: 'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'

    Poldark star Heida Reed

    'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'
    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
    Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

    Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

    Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
    Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
    With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

    Money, corruption and drugs

    The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
    America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

    150 years after it was outlawed...

    ... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
    Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

    You won't believe your eyes

    Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
    Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

    Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

    The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
    War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn