REVIEW

The Road Builder

by Nicholas Hershenow (Zaire/Congo 1985–87)
BlueHen Books
$ 25.95
528 pages
May 2001

Reviewed by Beth Giebus (Morocco 1990–93)

      “Oil, Will.”
      “Excuse me?”
      “Just one word, Will. Oil.”

    If the exchange sounds familiar, you may have seen the 1967 film, “The Graduate.” In one of the film’s most memorable scenes, Ben Braddock (Dustin Hoffman) receives some poolside advice:

      Mr. McGuire: I just want to say one word to you — just one word.
      Ben: Yes sir.
      Mr. McGuire: Are you listening?
      Ben: Yes I am.
      Mr. McGuire: Plastics.

         Although there are no pool parties or 40-year-old seductresses in Nicholas Hershenow’s The Road Builder, Will Haslin, the novel’s 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 Braddock’s coming-of-age story is upper-middle class suburbia, 32-year-old Will Haslin finds himself in — to quote the publisher’s promo materials — “the mystical labyrinth of central Africa.”
         Will’s 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 Kate’s 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 couldn’t help envisioning a young Tom Hanks in the lead, Meg Ryan as Kate . . .
         And this, ultimately, is my complaint: Reading it, I couldn’t 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.