Thursday, March 19, 2015

The Lost Continent: Travels in Small-Town America by Bill Bryson

It's happened at last, I've finally tackled my first Bill Bryson book, not to mention my first non-fiction of the year.  It happens that I own a stunning amount of Bryson's books and have read, until now, approximately none of them.  Such is the practice of the inveterate book hoarder. I mean, collector.  Of late, the helpful randomizer which I shamelessly rely on to choose my next read, rather than agonizing over whether to start this or that book of my overgrown collection, finally dictated that it was time to dust off my Bryson collection and give The Lost Continent a read.

Bryson, a native Iowan, abandoned the American midwest of his youth at the earliest opportunity to seek out a more refined and exciting life in England.  In the mid-80s, he returned to the United States, deciding to embark on a road trip to revel in an odd sort of nostalgia for the wretched vacations of his youth, and also to discover the ideal American small town of movies. As Bryson embarks on his tour of his native nation, I'll admit I was a little nervous.  I'm all for cynicism and sarcasm if it comes from a place of humor, but off the starting block Bryson comes off as a little too mean-spirited, shamelessly generalizing midwesterners into a group of well-meaning dimwits and deriding small towns a little too harshly for not being the idealized Hollywood small town.

However, as Bryson continues on his adventure, I found him a little less grating and a good deal more laugh out loud funny.  As he tours the unlikely tourist hotspots of the east side of the nation, I found myself giggling aloud more than once.  He revisits a few places from his childhood vacations discovering them to be both more and less attractive than they were the first time around.  He muses on his father's cheapness, peppers the narrative with random anecdotes that pass his time on the road, and makes critically funny observations about what he finds in each of his destinations.
I wandered through the crowds, and hesitated at the entrance to the Ripley's Believe It or Not Museum.  I could sense my father, a thousand miles away, beginning to rotate slowly in his grave as I looked at the posters...  The admission fee was five dollars.  The pace of my father's rotating quickened as I looked into my wallet and then sped to a whirring blur as I fished out a five-dollar bill and guiltily handed it to the unsmiling woman in the ticket booth.  "What the hell," I thought as I went inside, "at least it will give the old man some exercise.
The best parts, for me, were when Bryson stumbles across places I recognized, mostly because most of the places I recognized were either so astutely, if cynically, observed by him or, uh, he actually liked them.  His trip to Lancaster, PA - the tourist capital of Pennsylvania Amish country - is accurately and hilariously rendered, though it's kind of depressing on the whole.  For example, this is, in all reality, what one does in Lancaster, when one has tired of dodging buggies on the traffic choked roadways... 
I kept eating.  It was too delicious to pass up.  Buttons popped off my shirt; my trousers burst open.  I barely had the strength to lift my spoon, but I kept shoveling the stuff in.  It was grotesque.  Food began to leak from my ears.  And still I ate.  I ate more food that night than some African villagers eat in a lifetime.  Eventually, mercifully, the waitress prised the spoons out of our hands and took the dessert stuff away, and we were able to stumble zombielike out into the night.
Also, imagine my surprise that Bryson passed through my very own small hometown, and for once, actually seemed to like it.  He does, however, comment on the shopping mall that was built nearby in my youth, and speculates that the shopping mall will cause the dereliction of another good small town.  I'm happy to report, the town is fine.  The shopping mall, on the other hand?  Pretty derelict.  I feel as if Bryson would be pleased by this fact.

I enjoyed Bryson's tour of the east with funny commentary and investigation of various and sundry small towns, and, honestly wish he would have stopped there.  Instead, a little over halfway through the book, Bryson heads west in the springtime, and the book loses its focus.  Small towns disappear as Bryson grumpily traverses the National Parks of the west pursued by one miserable weather system after another.  Readers are disappointed along with him as he finds many of the stunning landmarks of the west obscured by fog and is dispirited by having to drive absurd distances to get to towns where the one restaurant is closed for the evening.  The ending simply wasn't as humorous and kind of dragged along devoid of purpose until he nears home and discovers that maybe he's loved this great nation without fully realizing it all along.

This book is definitely more suited to the sort of person who likes to play Cards Against Humanity than to the red-state American patriot who will doubtless be offended by Bryson's codgery handling of his trip around their beloved nation.  However, if you're the sort of reader who can take his observations with a grain of salt and even see the occasional, sometimes unfortunate, truth in some of his harsher appraisals, there's a good chance you'll get a kick out of this book.  At least the first half.  All in all, even if this isn't Bryson's best, which I doubt it is, I'm still glad to have much of the rest of his catalog on hand for the next time I'm in the mood for a laugh out loud funny travelogue.       


  1. Oh, how funny. I'm actually re-reading this book right now over breakfast each morning, getting through about 5 pages each day. It's not quite like I remember it, so it's been interesting. I enjoyed seeing Bill Bryson through the eyes of a first-time reader like you, so thanks for the review!

  2. I love Bill Bryson and have read all of his books. The story of his childhood Adventures of the Thunderbolt Kid is hilarious.

  3. I love Bryson's writing and perspective and will have to look for this book.

  4. This one isn't on my radar at all and now I wonder why! I've read a handful of his books (or listened to them) and enjoy them but he does have a bit of a biting sense of humor and a constant tone of condescension. I've mostly learned to let it roll off me but I'm glad I'm not the only one who hears it (no one ever mentions that he's kind of a jerk!)