The Lost Continent: Travels in Small Town America
Black Swan, 1989
"I come from Des Moines. Somebody had to."
And, as soon as Bill Bryson was old enough, he left. Des Moines couldn't hold him, but it did lure him back. After ten years in England, he returned to the land of his youth, and drove almost 14,000 miles in search of a mythical small town called Amalgam, the kind of trim and sunny place where the films of his youth were set. Instead, his search led him to Anywhere, USA; a lookalike strip of gas stations, motels and hamburger outlets populated by lookalike people with a penchant for synthetic fibres.
Travelling around thirty-eight of the lower states - united only in their mind-numbingly dreary uniformity - he discovered a continent that was doubly lost; lost to itself because blighted by greed, pollution, mobile homes and television; lost to him because he had become a stranger in his own land.
This was an absolute joy to read. I borrowed this book from my friend's dad, and a few pages in I realised that I'd actually read this book before, years ago, but I only vaguely remembered it. I'm glad I got a chance to re-read it as an adult. Bryson is acerbic, but there is a genuine affection for the country underlying his writing, which comes through more and more as he makes his journey around the continental United States. I think it would be easy to mis-read this book as an attack on his home country, but I took it more as a lament against those forces that can really ruin a landscape and dull people's desire to preserve their surroundings: big business, fast food restaurants, crappy tourist attractions.
Bryson was born in Des Moines, Iowa, but at the time of writing this book (1989) lived in the UK. There are a few comparisons between the two countries, which I appreciated, as someone who has lived in both. The book is testament to the sheer vastness of the US, from the little towns of New England to the huge, empty spaces of the West. Bryson visits a mixture of small towns, towns that are notable for their famous residents (most of which are geared towards tourism), and a couple of bigger cities, as well as Appalachia and the Grand Canyon.
Underlying Bryson's journey are memories of his father and the holidays they used to take as a family. I've come across this theme in travelogues of this sort before, the re-tracing of the father's steps and the desire to remember, but it was in the background, rather than used in an over-emotional or over-played way.
Most of all, Bryson is funny. He is also grumpy and occasionally bitter, but I found him the ideal travel companion as I devoured this book over the space of a week. His sense of humour is dry, his exasperation with the world frequent, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I particularly enjoyed his observation of the state line between North and South Carolina, where is goes from being attractive and tree-lined to scrub right as you cross it. I can attest that this, at least, has not changed.
I'll definitely be picking up some of Bryson's other travel books in future - he has written on the US, the UK and Australia - and, although this book is now over 20 years old, I would recommend it as a humorous, warts-and-all jaunt around America, that is both scathing and redemptive, an underlying and understated affection eventually shining through.
Overall rating: 9/10
Book source: Borrowed from my friend's dad.