Posts Tagged ‘1989 Travel Memoir’

The Lost Continent: Travels in Small Town America by Bill Bryson ~ 1989. This edition: Abacus, 1990. Paperback. ISBN: 0-349-10198-1. 293 pages.

My rating: 7.5/10. An averaged-out rating. I’ll award a 10/10 for the cutting humour, which is frequently snicker-out-loud funny, and sheer readability, but balance that with a 5/5 for the frequently vicious tone, the relentless mockery of almost everyone the author sees through his car window – fat ladies and people driving motorhomes come in for the nastiest comments – and the often needless vulgarity of some of the prose.

He could tone the rudeness down a mite – which he’s done in his later books – and still be clever and funny. I was frequently uncomfortable with myself for reading and enjoying this, as it felt like I was condoning Bryson’s mean streak, but I honestly never even came close to putting it down, and I know I will re-read it.

Bryson’s snark mellows somewhat as his journey progresses, and there are some genuinely poignant moments, mostly regarding his late father, his widowed mother, and his own family, whom he has temporarily abandoned back in England while he pursues his solo journey through America.

*****

This one snuck into my reading pile a few days ago. I’d just purchased it while on a road trip of my own, remembering when I saw it on the revolving rack that this was one Bryson I hadn’t yet read, and also remembering that it had a reputation for being the most offensively outspoken of his decidedly unshy travel memoirs. I opened it just to browse, and was firmly hooked. Undeniably readable, though it made me squirm. I wouldn’t give this one to my dear old mother, or really anyone else, unless I intimately knew their tolerance for crossing-the-line humour.

*****

In September of 1987, 36-year-old Bill Bryson got into the small red Chevette he had borrowed from his mother and headed out on a road trip to re-discover the America of his childhood. His father had recently died, and the subsequent nostalgic angst this engendered spurred Bryson to bid a temporary farewell to his wife and children in England – where he had lived for the past ten years – and take on a solo trip through “small town America”, echoing his childhood’s epic holiday road trips.

Keeping a journal of his pilgrimage, Bryson then wrote up his impressions in this opinionated and brash travelogue, his second book after the now-obscure and outdated The Palace under the Alps and Over 200 Other Unusual, Unspoiled and Infrequently Visited Spots in 16 European Countries (1985). (Here’s a side note for used bookstore browsers. That forgotten travel gem, which introduces the writer as William Bryson, starts at a respectable $40 on ABE, and proceeds well up into the hundreds. Something to keep in mind it if shows up in your travels. Just saying. I’d definitely buy a copy; the reviews on this one are encouraging, and it would be neat to round out the Bryson collection.)

But back to the book at hand.

13,978 miles and cursory stops – or at least drive-throughs – in thirty-eight states make up the sum of Bryson’s expeditions, over two separate periods, one in the fall and the other in the spring. Small towns are the focus, as Bryson searches for the fantasy ideal of the backdrop of the Hollywood movies of his childhood. Looking for utopia, Bryson is predictably and perennially disappointed, and he vents his chagrin freely and scornfully. There are plenty of good experiences, too, but almost every compliment has a bite behind it, of the “truth stings” variety. Bill targets himself as well, and it’s a good thing he does; it is the only thing that makes him bearable when he’s in full sarcastic cry.

Here’s an example of why I kept reading. Morbidly, awfully, very funny, probably because I know a few of these digitally damaged guys too. Bill Bryson sits in a roadside cafe in Palmyra, Missouri, and theorizes as to why so many farmers seem to have missing digits. The farmer sitting next to him has only three fingers on one hand, and Bill realizes that this isn’t terribly unusual.

(T)here is scarcely a farmer in the Midwest over the age of twenty who has not at some time or other had a limb or digit yanked off and thrown into the next field by some noisy farmyard implement.  To tell you the absolute truth, I think farmers do it on purpose.  I think working day after day beside these massive threshers and balers with their grinding gears and flapping fan belts and complex mechanisms they get a little hypnotized by all the noise and motion.  They stand there staring at the whirring machinery and they think, ‘I wonder what would happen if I just stuck my finger in there a little bit.’  I know that sounds crazy.  But you have to realize that farmers don’t have whole lot of sense in these matters because they feel no pain.  It’s true.  Every day in the Des Moines Register you can find a story about a farmer who has inadvertently torn off an arm and then calmly walked six miles into the nearest town to have it sewn back on.  The stories always say, ‘Jones, clutching his severed limb, told his physician, ‘I seem to have cut my durn arm off, Doc.’  It’s never:  ‘Jones, spurting blood, jumped around hysterically for twenty minutes, fell into a swoon and then tried to run in four directions at once,’ which is how it would be with you or me.”

The scope of Bryson’s travels is truly staggering; he does cover an awful lot of ground, and though there are plenty of places he blasts right through, he stops often enough to give glimpses of back road, small-town America in the not-so-distant past. Ronald and Nancy were in the White House, “Say No to Drugs” was the slogan of the moment, a frightening new disease called AIDS was making headlines, and the Black Monday stock market crash of October, 1987 rattled economic foundations worldwide, though Bryson reports that it seemed a no-news event in the towns he drove through, meriting only a passing mention on the small radio stations, while CBC Radio in Canada, which he picked up on his car radio, was broadcasting extensive, serious and sober coverage.

The book ends on a surprisingly optimistic note. Though Bryson finds he can’t find the America of his childhood, he does admit, after all his carping and critiquing, that there are still places in America’s hinterlands where life is slow, good and sweet. This doesn’t quite excuse some of the more bitter commentary that came before, but it helps.

Interesting book, in what it reveals about the author as well as his native land. Recommended, with reservations as stated above. Don’t say I didn’t warn you!

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