Thursday, April 4, 2013

Review -- The Lost Continent: Travels in Small Town America

Reading a memoir about traveling across America, while simultaneously working on the same type of book, can be dangerous, especially when that memoir is written by Bill Bryson, who, in addition to being a best-selling author, is the chancellor of England's Durham University.

The book -- The Lost Continent: Travels in Small Town America -- is the second of Bryson's I've read, the first being A Walk In the Woods: Rediscovering America On the Appalachian Trail. I really liked the Appalachian Trail book, in which Bryson walked long stretches of the at-times grueling, world-famous trail that runs for approximately 2,200 miles from Georgia to Maine (I wrote a little about the book, and my childhood spent playing amid the trees last year; see February 13, 2012, "Woods").

In A Walk In the Woods, Bryson spins a great tale of traveling with an out-of-shape friend, who provides comic relief. Bryson's descriptions of the wonderment, hardship and fear they faced during their adventure are terrific, as are his portraits of the landscapes through which they pass.

There are times when he gets a bit grumpy about things, understandably so given the challenge he set out for himself. And he gets a bit self-righteous about preservation at times. But overall, I really enjoyed the book.

So I had high hopes for The Lost Continent.

And I was somewhat let down. Sure, Bryson's trademark wit and self-deprecation are there. And his descriptions of the places he visits and travels past, and of people whom he meets, are vivid and funny. But there's a meanness to this book that I wasn't expecting.

Bryson was born in Des Moines, Iowa, in 1951. After dropping out of college and traveling a bit through Europe, he moved to England in 1973. He got married, and he and his wife briefly moved to the States. But in 1977, he moved back to the UK. In 1995, he, his wife and kids moved stateside, to New Hampshire. Then, in 2003, he went back across the pond.

He wrote The Lost Continent during two trips across the States in 1987 and 1988. At that point, he'd been in England for a decade, and was obviously used to the people, the culture, the history, the food, the states of entertainment, retail and travel in the Old Country.

So it's understandable that he'd compare things between the New World and Europe. In the book, he rarely makes direct comparisons between the two worlds, but his harsh statements about how fat and boring he finds most people in the States, and how disappointing he finds many of the points of interest that he visits make it plain that he believes his native land comes up short when held against England, et al.

American are fat. They're stupid. They don't care about real history, only about fake representations at sites designed only to separate you from your money. There's too much landscape in between towns out West. Southern people speak too slowly. On and on he goes.

I'm not gonna lie to you: when I traveled across the country in a van with three friends in 1988 I made many of these same observations. But I expect a world-class writer to do a better job, to get off his high horse and engage with people, and find the stories behind the facades.

Still, I found enjoyment in the book. Bryson's a great writer, funny and observant and quite capable of tying his road trip experiences to moments from his childhood. In fact, the comparisons he draws between trips he took with his parents and siblings to some of the same locations he revisits as an adult, are some of the funniest and most poignant in the book.

Evidently, he returned to Iowa after his father died, and then took the road trip before flying back to England. It makes sense that the stories about his father and family trips are so well done.

I found myself wishing I could travel to some of the places Bryson visited, as well as to revisit some of the spots that I'm writing about in my memoir.

Unlike Bryson, when I traveled from Connecticut down to Florida, across to New Orleans, up to Memphis and out to New Mexico, I wasn't planning on writing a book. Sure, I kept a very basic journal and recorded some conversations on cassette tape, but 25 years after the fact, those sources aren't as complete as I wanted them to be.

In reading Bryson's cross-country tale, I'm jealous of the detail he includes, and the seeming ease with which he makes me laugh. Honestly, though, I'm doing a better job than I ever could have imagined with my memoir. I've spent 11 months on the book, and have arrived at a fairly complete picture of the trip I took, and how I felt about things while on the road. I've also managed to tie in other events from my childhood and from high school and college into the whole affair.

So, I recommend the book, but with the above caveats. And I look forward to reading I'm a Stranger Here Myself: Notes On Returning to America After 20 Years Away, Bryson's book about returning to the U.S. with his family in the mid-'90s.

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