You can know a country from its small towns and villages because the big cities are almost same everywhere. Bill Bryson’s A Lost Continent: Travels in Small Town America establishes that fact beyond any doubt. The America you meet in the small towns that Bryson takes you through are a world very different from how we know America.
You will meet American bigotry (against blacks), poverty, ignorance about the world beyond, tits and bits of history, encountering an America, in the process, which is anything but glamorous and alluring.
And along the way your constant companion will be Bryson’s whacky observations (some of which indeed make you laugh) and autobiographical details about growing up in small town America (Des Moines, Iowa), which always adds character to travelogues, as he takes you through the obscure towns and cities of America on his way back home several years after he settled in England with an English wife.
What stays with you finally are not so much the prosaic details about these places (some are not efficiently laid out, some are plain dirty, some have no proper eateries etc.) as much the America the country and society that emerges through them.
There are searing observations. In the North people don’t dislike blacks as overtly as they do in South. In the North the whites wish blacks all success in life, but avoid being seen socializing with them. Somewhere are deep: America is a country of small town values – hard work, religion etc.
Bill Bryson’s writing style is complete standup comedy. Sometimes it’s effective and sometimes it reads like the kind of comedy a group clown does while among his school friends, knowing that any joke is better than no joke.
But then I have my sympathies with Bryson. Writing a travelogue is not easy – keeping the reader interested with the most average matters of life can be tedious to write and to read a well, that’s why travel book writers resort to history and autobiographical details. Alas, some of the towns Bryson drives through are so utterly obscure and insignificant that probably there is no recorded history to fall back on.
Where there is nothing to build the narrative around you wade through page after page of gibberish or Brysonism about what he thinks about a bad TV anchor whose show he stumbled upon when he switched on the TV in a hotel room – expecting that a nice piece of history or sprinkling of autobiography is just round the corner. It’s not that your patience is never rewarded but sometimes you are also left with disappointment.
But when your patience is rewarded with a piece of history or an autobiographical slice, it’s like a crunchy chocolate nugget coming in to break the monotony of landmass of vanilla ice cream.
Bryson’s father is a recurring presence in the book reappearing to rescue his son over and over again. Bryson’s father grew up during the Great Depression of the 1930s and that left a lifelong impact on him: it made him extremely tightfisted – always looking out for opportunities to minimize expenditure. This fiscal restraint was a constant presence in Bill’s and his brother’s upbringing, staying in economy hotels when they went vacationing, which they did very often, eating at not so good hotels etc. This solid middleclass upbringing informs Bill Bryson’s worldview – an indifference to money and a loathing for extravaganza – which is evident through the book but prominently comes through when he visits Los Angeles, Nevada. But I also suspected he plays up the indifference to money and wealth thing a bit.
As much as Bryson sees everything American through the eyes of an insider someone who grew up in the country, Bryson also brings a refreshing perspective of an outsider, having stayed in England for many years.
When he happens to a backward place which has a reputation poverty stricken, he observes the houses seem to have everything you need for a decent living; yes, of course they don’t have air conditioners, fridges (the book was written may years ago) etc. – the quintessential American middle class gadgets – but that hardly makes them impoverished.
He continues that his father in law, in England, in his younger days was many years away from owning his own car and he never owned a firsthand car in his whole life; but no one called him poor or sent him aids. Observations like this save the book from becoming a dry tourist guide.