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
Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey in the first-look Fifty Shades of Grey movie still

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sue Perkins and Mel Giedroyc, centre, are up for Best Female TV Comic for their presenting quips on The Great British Bake Off

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Martin Freeman as Lester Nygaard in the TV adaptation of 'Fargo'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Shakespeare in Love at the Noel Coward Theatre
theatreReview: Shakespeare in Love has moments of sheer stage poetry mixed with effervescent fun
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
<p><strong>2008</strong></p>
<p>Troubled actor Robert Downey Jr cements his comeback from drug problems by bagging the lead role in Iron Man. Two further films follow</p>

film
Arts and Entertainment

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Tycoons' text: Warren Buffett and Bill Gates both cite John Brookes' 'Business Adventures' as their favourite book

books
Arts and Entertainment
Panic! In The Disco's Brendon Urie performs on stage

music
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Radio 4's Today programme host Evan Davis has been announced as the new face of Newsnight

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams performing on the Main Stage at the Wireless Festival in Finsbury Park, north London

music
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Mathison returns to the field in the fourth season of Showtime's Homeland

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Crowds soak up the atmosphere at Latitude Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Meyne Wyatt and Caren Pistorus arrive for the AACTA Aawrds in Sydney, Australia

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rick Astley's original music video for 'Never Gonna Give You Up' has been removed from YouTube

music
Arts and Entertainment
Quentin Blake's 'Artists on the beach'

Artists unveils new exhibition inspired by Hastings beach

art
Arts and Entertainment
MusicFans were left disappointed after technical issues
Arts and Entertainment
'Girl with a Pearl Earring' by Johannes Vermeer, c. 1665
artWhat is it about the period that so enthrals novelists?
Arts and Entertainment
Into the woods: The Merry Wives of Windsor at Petersfield
theatreOpen-air productions are the cue for better box-office receipts, new audiences, more interesting artistic challenges – and a picnic
Arts and Entertainment
James singer Tim Booth
latitude 2014
Arts and Entertainment
Lee says: 'I never, ever set out to offend, but it can be an accidental by-product'
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
tvThe judges were wowed by the actress' individual cooking style
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
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.

    Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

    Screwing your way to the top?

    Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
    Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

    Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

    Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

    The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

    Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
    US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

    Meet the US Army's shooting star

    Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform
    Climate change threatens to make the antarctic fur seal extinct

    Take a good look while you can

    How climate change could wipe out this seal
    Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier for the terminally ill?

    Farewell, my lovely

    Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier?
    Man Booker Prize 2014 longlist: Crowdfunded novel nominated for first time

    Crowdfunded novel nominated for Booker Prize

    Paul Kingsnorth's 'The Wake' is in contention for the prestigious award
    Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster to ensure his meals aren't poisoned

    Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster

    John Walsh salutes those brave souls who have, throughout history, put their knives on the line
    Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

    Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

    A $25m thriller starring Sam Worthington to be made in God's Own Country
    Will The Minerva Project - the first 'elite' American university to be launched in a century - change the face of higher learning?

    Will The Minerva Project change the face of higher learning?

    The university has no lecture halls, no debating societies, no sports teams and no fraternities. Instead, the 33 students who have made the cut at Minerva, will travel the world and change the face of higher learning
    The 10 best pedicure products

    Feet treat: 10 best pedicure products

    Bags packed and all prepped for holidays, but feet in a state? Get them flip-flop-ready with our pick of the items for a DIY treatment
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games

    Commonwealth Games 2014

    Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games
    Jack Pitt-Brooke: Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism

    Jack Pitt-Brooke

    Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism
    How Terry Newton tragedy made iron men seek help to tackle their psychological demons

    How Newton tragedy made iron men seek help to tackle their psychological demons

    Over a hundred rugby league players have contacted clinic to deal with mental challenges of game