Book Review: THE TRAVEL WRITER by Jeff Soloway

Jacob Smalls is an opportunistic travel writer who accidentally becomes a sleuth when a fellow American–a magazine editor–he knows goes missing from a luxurious South American hotel. Pilar Rojas, the hotel’s beautiful PR person, is Jacob’s ex-girlfriend, and she asks him to help her figure out what happened. The political landscape in Bolivia is dicey at best and outright dangerous at worst, so Smalls is reluctant to get involved, but he does so anyway, primarily to get another shot at winning Rojas’s heart. Shady characters with obscure motivations, gorgeous and exotic settings, and half-truths abound in this somewhat thin, but immensely enjoyable mystery.

The main reason why this is such a good read is the writing. Especially for a debut novelist, Soloway tosses out brilliant passage after passage, all of which reminded me of Hunter S. Thompson’s novel THE RUM DIARY. As characters go, Smalls is an emotional and professional free-agent with no real allegiance to anyone except Pilar. He risks life and limb to assist Pilar in the investigation, and he even rekindles the romantic flame, but he is always guarded. The best aforementioned passages come when Smalls is describing the exotic setting (with stunningly vivid details that reek of authenticity) and when he’s ruminating on life, love, and death. Here’s one of the two dozen or so I highlighted on my Kindle. It gives you a real sense of the unique voice.

“And even death itself, the ultimate and eternal monotony. When I was polishing off a free steak, or mentally composing a hypothetical Pulitzer acceptance speech, or just talking without anxiety to Pilar–in other words, when I was content, however briefly–the dread was banished, or perhaps just wrapped up and packed safely away. Death itself is universal and undefeatable, but the dread of death is merely human and therefore subject to human mastery.”

This is one of those uncanny moments when I’m reading, and it feels like the author has sneaked into my head and put down on paper a more artistic expression of the way I feel or have felt. And Soloway does this, again and again and again. As I said, the mystery is thin, but the three-dimensional characters and haunting prose make this a must read. I’m definitely going to read more of this writer’s offerings, and you should, too.