White Heat

Motel Nirvana

first published in 1996

A book about the New Age movement and its American heartland. It concerns the author’s travels around the south-western United States of Nevada, Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona, and her encounters with some of that region’s most unusual communities and individuals.


At night she took sleeping pills, which did not make her sleep, and during the day she took uppers, which did not make her feel awake. Often she would catch herself hallucinating on the journey into work. She lost her spatial sense, she saw everything in two dimensions and as though it were at a far distance. Each day seemed to pass as in a dream or a psychedelic trip, and this enlivened the boredom of the office routine. The morning would begin in a blue funk hangover from the effects of mogadon or tempazepam and grind towards afternoon in a pleasing swirl of pink and orange paper clips. By the end of the week she could scarcely recall her own name. No one seemed to notice. Her superiors would buzz in from time to time to deposit the week’s memoranda on the mildewed stack, like blowflies leaving eggs on rotten meat. She never really cared to find out what they wanted, and they never troubled to tell her. During the first brief hour of sentience, from nine to ten, she would open letters and peel off the stamps for charity, then from ten o’clock onwards she’d play around with India ink and rubber stamps marked ‘Repl’d’ and ‘Confdl’, flip post-it notes and fall asleep in the company toilets. Letters would leave the office neatly stamped but entirely blank, agreements would be made to be forgotten. She would initial a few forms at random, colour in the company logo and despatch miscellaneous office stationery to distant warehouses. Every few months or so the memoranda men would request the pleasure of her company over a cheese ‘n’ pickle sandwich lunch and remind her of her rosy prospects. Meanwhile, the salary cheques would dissolve into books and booze and records, which were her solace through the wakeful nights.


McGrath is a rare phenomenon: a European who can report on American racism and commercial excess without sounding self-righteous…McGrath achieves a balance between mockery and understanding that is rare among commentators on contemporary spirituality.
Kirkus Reviews

Like Jack Kerouac’s On the Road but with laughs.
Independent on Sunday

A vivid and entertaining travelogue.
Marie Claire

Cynical, incisive, deadpan funny and sad.
Sydney Morning Herald

Vivid and compelling…a kind of Pilgrim’s Progress for the end of the twentieth century, always provocative but never self-satisfied.

A brilliant writer.
Dervla Murphy

McGrath is a cool-eyed chronicler of a dispossessed generation – philosophical, astute and ultimately unforviging. This is no pseudo rock’n’roll trip, but an accessible and insightful study of the modern condition.
Literary Review

Fortifying herself with booze, cigarettes and a useful amount of asperity and common sense, McGrath painstakingly trawls the aisles of the spiritual supermarket. She writers beautifully about the terrain, offers deliciously dyspeptic observations…and is very funny on the sense of spiralling dislocation which arises from being confronted not just with unfamiliar behaviour but with ‘an entirely foreign inner architecture.’
Daily Telegraph

McGrath has a fine, questing mind, a splendid eye for detail and a healthily cynical attitude. Confronted at every turn – in her deliciously sardonic picaresque travelogue through American’s south-western desert states – by the strange, the sinister and the just plain barmy…she maintain a fine, dense and colourful narrative that brings the desert landscape and the loony-tune new Agers vividly to life.
Financial Times

With deadpan wit, Melanie McGrath reminds me why I came to America. Just like a warped episode of The Wonderful World of Disney, an On the Road for the New Age. Had tears rolling down my cheek. Couldn’t put it down.

A serious record of one woman’s desolate journey in the desert…She pins down the bikers and the Bloody Marys, the Mormons, the exhausted Indians, the yearning divorcees, the ancient air conditioners, the scorpions, the centipedes – the motels themselves, all strange beyond words. My own desert-rat mom doesn’t like anything, but she’d like this.
The Washington Post