Second-novelist Nicholson (The Tribes of Palos Verdes, 1997) blends the trenchant politics of Barbara Kingsolver with the emotional insight of Sue Miller.
Nick Sperry, a charming journalist with alcoholic tendencies, decides to take a long vacation and write the novel he’s been playing with for ten years. He and his girlfriend Sarah head to Mexico, where they try out some largish resort towns, but find themselves sickened by the tourist scene. Mexicans and Europeans alike are fluent in anti-American criticism (the story’s set at the beginning of the recent Iraq war, and its portrayal of international hostility toward the gringos is one of its great strengths). The two finally land at the remote Gasthaus Esmeralda, a curious inn run by the even more curious Karl Von Tollman and located in the middle of a “patch of Mexican jungle. . . crafted into a Little Bavaria.” Nicholson quickly delves into psychological terrain. Nick’s writer’s block is about unresolved issues with his racist, militaristic father: a predictable- and potentially trite-sounding theme that Nicholson handles with sophistication. Too, in Esmeralda, Sarah turns confessional. Increasingly furious about American imperialism, she wants to stay in Mexico and take up the cause of endangered animals. She reveals that she quit her meaningless tech job two months earlier, and has been supporting herself selling family heirlooms. She’s not the only one out of work: shortly before their trip, she ran into Nick’s boss at the grocery store—and he apprised her of his plans to fire Nick. Not to mention that, but, unbeknownst to Nick, she’s been in treatment for clinical anxiety. Oh, and there’s the fact that Sarah has taken a $20,000 cash advance from their credit cards. Circumstances spiral down from there. Still, the tale remains taut and suspenseful as Nick and Sarah find themselves ensnared in a tangle of politics and drugs.
Without qualification: take the road to Esmeralda.