Book Review: Readings
Reviewed by Jess Sauer, Fri., June 24, 2005
The Road to Esmeralda
by Joy Nicholson
St. Martin's, 346 pp., $24.95Anyone who's taken a freshman writing workshop knows that the cicadas in bad poetry outnumber those in real life. The fact that Joy Nicholson uses not only "cicada," but also "mangrove," in the first sentence of The Road to Esmeralda makes one suspect that she might want to return to the workshop. The rest of the book only validates that suspicion.
The Road to Esmeralda is, in some basic senses, a political thriller. However, it's also the story of mind-blowingly pretentious, self-indulgently self-loathing, overprivileged and underclever yuppies. Nick and Sarah are two Los Angelenos who drive deep into Mexico's heart to escape America and their identities as Americans, and also so Nick can work on his novel. Nowhere is safe, though, so of course the two are constantly subjected to the political ramblings of one "European anti-American Mexicrasher" after another. They don't deserve it they don't believe in the war. They're sensitive to other nations: They even avoided washing their BMW for two months before traveling so as to avoid appearing arrogant to Mexicans. In short: They are repellent, but in a fairly conventional, uninteresting way. There are a million opportunities for satire here, and Nicholson doesn't take a single one.
The most disturbing thing about The Road to Esmeralda is its unabashed xenophobia. Every foreigner's lines are transcribed in a caricaturish accent. Every foreigner is suspected of ulterior, sinister motives, and every foreigner winds up having them. The kindly German owner of the guesthouse turns out to be not a Nazi, as Nick had suspected, but rather a drug runner. This is perhaps the book's biggest twist, one that is foreshadowed so heavy-handedly that its realization is, unsurprisingly, completely unsurprising.
In all, the novel is 346 pages of smarmy, insipid prose that reads like a culturally illiterate Nick Hornby (a passing reference to Lionel Richie's "Three Times a Lady" wrongly attributes the song to "one of the popular hair bands of the eighties," for example) trying to bum a ride with J.M. Coetzee. Nicholson's cultural references seem forced and unnecessary, and one gets the impression that the author is straining to emphasize the timeliness of her work. It's bad enough when Nick's boss describes his pallor as "exactly the same shade" as an iMac (which, last I checked, is white), but when Nick actually uses the term "air-con" for air conditioning, one loses all hope for the book redeeming itself, and rightly so.