Author Bill Bryson writes prolifically on everything from household objects to language; he also writes idiosyncratic travelogues. I’ve never regretted picking up a book by him, so I had high hopes for The Lost Continent: Travels in Small Town America. Bryson grew up in Iowa in the ‘50s and ‘60s, but long has made his home in the UK; so, for this adventure he was coming home but with an acquired outside perspective. It was a promising combination. Starting in his hometown of Des Moines, he drove a circuit around the US in search of the perfect small town of TV and movies. (I could have told him the only place this exists: Main Street in Disneyland, and it isn’t real.) He didn’t avoid the big cities completely – it would have been silly to shun a city when it was between where he was and where he intended to go – but his objective was small town America. Despite the passage of time since publication, in fundamental respects nothing much has changed about his way-stops.
To anyone who hasn’t tried a road trip around the US, I recommend it; it takes a few months to do it halfway properly, but you probably can cut this to one if you don’t mind pausing at each stop only long enough to snap a photo. I did this the first time as long ago as 1975. (See The Roxy Caution at my Richard’s Mirror site for a brief account of one stop on that journey.) Do it once and the road always will beckon.
The problem with Bryson’s book is not the outside perspective but the “coming home” part. One always feels free to be ruder about oneself and one’s countrymen than about others, and that is as it should be. And yet… By analogy, we all complain sometimes about our family foibles (or possibly even crimes), and such stories often make for funny conversation, but there is a point beyond which the complaints get off-putting to the listener. You know how some folks will carry on about the mean sister, the unfeeling mother, the crazy father, the passive aggressive brother, and so on so relentlessly that you begin to feel embarrassed for the gripers? OK, Aunt Bessie has thirteen cats and Uncle Fred is a sneak drinker, but is there nothing more to them? If there is, we never hear of it. It took only a few chapters of The Lost Continent for that kind of embarrassment to kick in. Mind you, I don’t take offense to his commentary in some touchy patriotic way. I’ve said worse things about all the places he mentions – albeit not in a cascade one right after the other – and I would be just as uncomfortable with his tone (maybe more so) if he were writing about Romania. And yet… is there nothing more to those places?
Regarding Iowa girls:
“Iowa women are almost always sensationally overweight…I don’t know what it is that happens to them but it must be awful to marry one of those nubile cuties knowing that there is a time bomb ticking away in her that will at some unknown date make her bloat out into something huge and grotesque, presumably all of a sudden and without much notice, like a self-inflating raft from which the pin has been yanked.”
“In the morning I awoke early and experienced that sinking sensation that overcomes you when you first open your eyes and realize that instead of a normal day ahead of you, with its scatterings of simple gratifications, you are going to have a day without even the tiniest of pleasures; you are going to drive across Ohio.”
Making fun of Southern accents:
“‘Yew honestly a breast menu, honey?’...She might as well have addressed me in Dutch. It took many moments and much gesturing with a knife and fork to establish that what she had said to me was, ‘Do you want to see a breakfast menu, honey?’”
On Utah and Mormons:
“It makes you feel a little like Kevin McCarthy in Invasion of the Body Snatchers…”
“What’s the difference between Nevada and a toilet? Answer: You can flush a toilet.”
On Los Angeles:
“I think it is only right that crazy people should have their own city, but I can’t for the life of me see why a sane person would want to go there.”
You get the idea. Funny? Yes. At least a kernel of truth? Yes. And, yet…
By the time he completes his 13,978 mile circuit, however, he mellows. He hasn’t found that perfect small town but he has found pieces of it scattered here and there. Sounding a curiously sentimental note after all that went before, he writes about his re-entry into Des Moines,
“There was just something about it that looked friendly and decent and nice. I could live here, I thought, and turned the car for home. It was the strangest thing, but for the first time in a long time I felt almost serene.”
The Lost Continent is worth a read despite the sighs it provokes. Bryson writes very well, he has a good eye, and his grouchiness can be amusing. But he has reminded me to keep my own carping in check – or at least to balance those complaints about Bessie’s thirteen cats with an observation that her petunias look nice.
Me and You and a Dog Named Boo