The City of Your Final Destination arrived in the mail, sent by a friend with impeccable taste, and it proved to be very enjoyable. The title sounds ominous, doesn’t it? I suppose it relates in a free-floating way to the narrative, which does feature characters traveling long distances for reasons that barely seem under their control. The omniscient narrator at one point asks “Why does traveling, coming far, excite us? Has it to do with what we leave behind or with what we encounter?”
In The City… the excitement comes from both sources. Omar Razaghi, a graduate student at the University of Kansas, is prodded by his girlfriend to visit Uruguay to obtain authorization to write a biography of a dead writer named Jules Gund. Jules’s brother, widow, daughter and mistress live uneasily in an enormous house in the country, miles from anywhere. Oh, gosh… “I don’t think we’re in Kansas any more, Toto…” Well, whether or not Omar mirrors Dorothy, he is certainly out of his depth. The scenes in Kansas (snowy, flat, provincial, academic) and in Uruguay (lush, remote, decaying) demonstrate this clearly. Cameron’s narrator never goes so far as to describe Omar directly, but other characters’ reactions to him inform us that he is both handsome and charming, if possibly ineffectual and naive. Adam Gund — deliciously sardonic — says of Omar, “I found him charming in a slightly stupid, dewy-eyed, bushy-tailed way… it would be nice to put him in a cage and feed him nuts. And pet him.”
Only gradually do we learn the background of this weird South American menage. The widow is bitter, the mistress puzzled, the brother endlessly mordant, his younger Thai boyfriend restive. There is a gondola, marooned on a dry lake. Jules Gund the novelist wrote one novel, called The Gondola. (We read none of it, thank Heaven.) Omar’s arrival and quest to obtain permission from these heirs to dig through their past shakes everything up. Hard on his heels comes his meddling girlfriend Deirdre, aggressive, dense, self-centered if well-meaning, trampling over all of his small achievements.
The action returns to Kansas, then again to Uruguay, then to New York. (The New York section reminded me of Julia Glass in the delightful Three Junes, but the rest of the book is less sunny.) The end of the novel feels a little bit desultory, as if Cameron had not quite figured out how to stow all of his characters safely in new lives. I preferred the earlier parts of the book, as when Omar “decided that it was too easy to get places. I really should not be in Montevideo so soon. It was better before planes.”