The Road Builder
by Nicholas Hershenow (Zaire/Congo 198587)
Reviewed by Beth Giebus (Morocco 199093)
If the exchange sounds familiar, you may have seen the 1967 film, The Graduate. In one of the films most memorable scenes, Ben Braddock (Dustin Hoffman) receives some poolside advice:
Although there are no pool parties or 40-year-old seductresses in Nicholas Hershenows The Road Builder, Will Haslin, the novels protagonist, bears some resemblance to the title character of the 1967 film. Both are reluctant to enlist in the 9 to 5 work world, and both manage to postpone the inevitable job by seeking temporary asylum in an obsessive love affair. But whereas the backdrop for 21-year-old Ben Braddocks coming-of-age story is upper-middle class suburbia, 32-year-old Will Haslin finds himself in to quote the publishers promo materials the mystical labyrinth of central Africa.
Wills African sojourn comes courtesy of his girlfriend, Kate. Asked to gather the journals and papers of her dying uncle into a coherent memoir, Kate travels to the bush village of Ngemba to fill in the missing pieces. Will comes, too, posing (for reasons not entirely clear) as Kates husband.
Once settled in Ngemba, the two become consultants at the local palm oil mill (Excuse me Will. I misspoke. Not one word. Two words. Palm oil) And as Kate becomes increasingly aware of and sympathetic to the plight of the villagers, Will grows more ineffectual and bureaucratic. Through it all, a host of characters, join in helping Will and Kate unravel the truth about uncle Pers the Belgian engineer known in Ngemba as the road builder.
Nicholas Hershenow knows how to tell a good story, and this book may keep readers turning all 528 pages. Many scenes are vividly rendered, giving the novel a cinematic quality. Reading it, I couldnt help envisioning a young Tom Hanks in the lead, Meg Ryan as Kate . . .
And this, ultimately, is my complaint: Reading it, I couldnt help envisioning a young Tom Hanks in the lead, Meg Ryan as Kate.
Call me a purist.
The Road Builder would make a great movie. But as a novel, it is perhaps best read with some Simon and Garfunkel music playing in the background.
Beth Giebus is the writer/editor for Peace Corps World Wise Schools.