Monday, May 7, 2012

I was in a part of the world where you could drive hundreds of miles in any direction before you found civilization

Bryson is one of my go-to reads, whenever I want to read something familiar, but I'm not quite sure what. Last month I took part in Alice's The Woman in White readalong. I didn't want to read ahead of the week's designated chapters. At least not until I had written that week's post. However that left me time when I was done with my WiW reading and needed something else. I very briefly attempted to start Jane Austen's Emma but the styles were too similar. Yes, I know, different period and everything but to my untrained eye I was mixing up characters and took a cue from Greg (aka The New Dork Review via BookRiot), that if I am going to read multiple books at once they need to be very different. At the time Laura from Devouring Texts* was reading Bryson's Notes from a Small Island and I thought reading some Bryson was an excellent idea. I'd just go USA style with his The Lost Continent: Travels in Small-Town America. And here we have it.

Not long after Bryson's father passed away he decided to travel around the US in search of a quintessential American small-town. The kind that you see in 1950s movies, where everything is clean and neat and everyone is happy. Plus this gave him a chance to reconnect with his home country, after living in England for so long. He starts off in his home down of Des Moines, Iowa and first heads east, stops home for a bit to re-energize and then continues west. And he covers most of the continental US, hitting 38 out of the lower 48 and driving 13,978 miles.

If you've read any Bryson before, you have a good idea what you're in for. He gives you a little bit of history about a place, tells you about his adventure (or lack thereof), shares stories about the people he encountered, whether they were lovely or morons and is constantly confounded by the prices he encounters. Bryson manages to make any topic interesting, and his travelogues are especially entertaining. After an evening of carousing with his brother he decides to leave his car in Pennsylvania and take a long distance bus up to NYC.  As he describes: "By and large a ride on a long-distance bus in America combines most of the shortcomings of prison life with those of an ocean crossing on a troopship." The fact that he was nursing a massive hangover may have made the ride that much more of a hell for him (made all the worse by his seatmates) but at least I enjoyed it.

It's not all schadenfreude** however. There are moments when he finds something truly awe inspiring, like his visit to the Grand Canyon or even just admiring the beauty of Iowa's rolling farms. There insights into the oddities of American life, sometimes about something trivial and sometimes more serious. He noted while driving towards Elvis's home that there were lots of large nice homes that were next to tiny shacks. "It struck me as notably ironic that Southerners could despise blacks so bitterly and yet live comfortably alongside them, while in the North people by and large did not mind blacks, even respected them as humans and wished them every success, just so long as they didn't have to mingle with them too freely." I'm not sure how true (more? less? the same?) this is now compared to 1989 when the book was published, but it is an interesting question nonetheless.

This may not be my favorite Bryson book*** but it is fun to watch him experience the variations in sights America has to offer. He may never find a single town to live up to his small-town America expectations (because really, such a town can't exist in the real world and I promise I'm not spoiling anything by saying this, as he comes to this realization fairly early on) but he does find bits and pieces of perfection.

*I didn't realize how many book bloggers were responsible for my decision to read this book. Apparently I don't make any choices on my own anymore.
**Seriously spell check?? You recognize that word but not velociraptor?
***My favorites include Neither Here Nor There, A Short History of Nearly Everything, The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid and Made in America.

Title quote from page 293

Bryson, Bill. The Lost Continent: Travels in Small-Town America. Harper Perennial, 1989.