There’s something profoundly unsettling at times about being a book reviewer, particularly a book reviewer who is also a would-be writer. I’m not talking about the well-known gripes of the reviewing trade (like “review inflation,” the phenomenon by which the reviewer feels compelled to find something nice to say about every piece of flotsam that crosses their desk) but about the simple, daunting insight into the futility of many author’s lives that reviewing brings. I feel a twinge every time I review a book by a promising young author who no one’s heard of, and who is most likely fated to sink into the depths of things forgotten. I feel an even sharper twinge every time I review a book by a talented older author who no one’s heard of. But worst of all are the books about which there is, simply, nothing to say.
Bob Gaulke’s recent travel journal, The Nervous Tourist, falls into this last category. A slim volume released in January 2004 by Future Tense Books, The Nervous Tourist is a collection of essays and notes written by Gaulke chronicling his year spent in Brazil. In the introduction of this book, Gaulke tells us:
I had to get out. I felt like I had a mental rash or something. My surroundings felt less than real, my life felt short of satisfying. I had spent most of my life in cold northern cities after growing up in a house half-full of Middle Eastern culture. Maybe there was something in my past that told me there were other places in the world where emotions counted for me. I heard what I needed in Brazilian music.
Gaulke travels to Brazil where he spends his time working as an English teacher at a quasi-bankrupt private school, drinking beer, dancing at carnival, and learning how to wear a sunga (a small, tight-fitting men’s bathing suit like a Speedo) in public.
The Nervous Tourist is written with a kind of lighthearted good humor that makes it quick enough going and easy on the eyes; and here and there, this book contains passages in which we see the foreign wonder of Brazil through Gaulke’s eyes flare like a brilliant spark in the darkness. But in the end, really, none of this potential comes to very much: none of Gaulke’s insights seem particularly original, there is no story to speak of, and the perspective he offers is one of the perpetual cultural outsider, never penetrating beyond the surface of Brazil as a series of picture postcards and alienated encounters. To be honest, after finishing this review I will probably never think about The Nervous Tourist again.
And that, for me, is the unsettling thing. Because clearly Mr. Gaulke is a writer of some talent; clearly he devoted months of his life to assembling this little volume. Perhaps (if he is like most of us) he once imagined great things in store for this work – the journal that revolutionized travel writing! The essays that prompted a profound re-thinking of international relations! And in the end this may be the most lasting message of The Nervous Tourist, as a lesson in humility to aspiring author-types: that so much effort and so many good sentences can result in something so forgettable.
Mr. Gaulke’s book is available for purchase at Powell’s.
About the author:
Matthew Flaming is affordable, biodegradable, non-toxic in most applications, and comes in a variety of convenient flavors and packages including new Literary Purple. More information can be found at www.matthewflaming.com.