A Journalist's Archive

The Lost Continent
Bill Bryson
Reviewed by Kathy Hare

           Bill Bryson was on a mission when he began his journey across 38 states. Returning home after 10 years in Great Britain, where he fled to avoid serving in Vietnam, Bryson was in search of the ideal American town featured in movies and television shows of his youth. He named his mythical town "Amalgam," filled it with tree-lined streets, a town square with weed-free flower beds, strong tidy buildings, and friendly people who  stop to say hello to strangers. Instead he discovered the mind-numbing sameness of strip malls, fast-food joints, and shallow simple-minded people, most of whom he describes as grossly overweight. By the end of the trip, the title he deemed appropriate for his travel journal was "The Lost Continent."

           However, I believe a better title would be "The Lost Citizen," because that's what Bryson was when he wrote this book. His dislike for America began at age 10 when he saw a movie staring Anthony Perkins. After that, Bryson writes, "I wanted to be a European boy."

          Ironically, that's where I discovered "The Lost Continent." It was featured front and center in an Irish bookstore in a section entitled "Great Travel Books." The comment from "The Irish Times" on the back cover induced me to purchase the book. It says, "Funny as this wonderful book is, it is also a serious indictment of the American way of life and the direction in which it is going." Ok, I love amusing books, and I know America is far from perfect, so let's see why "The Lost Continent," first published in 1989, is still a big seller in Europe.

          Well, no wonder! Bryson neatly packed all the stereotypical ideas Europeans have about America into 379 pages and laced it with his own brand of humor, which can only be described as droll sarcasm.

          Bryson begins his story with a description of his birthplace. "Outside town there is a big sign that says WELCOME TO DES MOINES. THIS IS WHAT DEATH IS LIKE." Ok that's funny, so I thought I was going to love this book. But within a few chapters Bryson's writing reminded me of comments parents must endure when their children first return home from college. Everything in town is boring, their parents are brain-dead, and in a few short months the student has acquired all the intelligence in the universe. However, Bryson was well into his thirties when he wrote "The Lost Continent" so there is no excuse for his unrelenting obnoxious egotism.

          His home state takes the brunt of his criticism. Before beginning his journey in his   mother's beat-up Chevy, Bryson said, "Iowa women are almost always sensationally over-weight...looking a little like elephants dressed in children's clothing, yelling at their kids, calling out names like Dwayne and Shauna." During the trip, he describes nearly every waitress he encounters as gum-chewing dimwits "with butterfly glasses and a beehive hairdo." While the comment is funny the first time around, after the 10th time it's boring!

          In Indiana he laments that while English maps show every church, hamlet and village, whole towns are often missing from American maps. But let's face it Bryson, unlike England, America is an immense country, and this problem could have been solved by purchasing smaller-scale maps.

          Bryson also had trouble reading the legend on the map. When he visits Colorado, he decides to go to Victor and Cripple Creek via Phantom Canyon. To his shock and dismay, he quickly discovers it's a dirt road. Duh! He describes the road as "the most desolate and bone-shaking road I have ever been on, full of ruts and rocks." Well yes it is, but not once did he mention the outstanding scenery. If he knew how to read a map, he could have driven up Interstate 25 to Highway 24 and avoided all that nasty beauty.

          But Bryson's goal is not to illuminate America's good points; instead he wishes to bash everything about his native country. He describes farmers as the dullest creatures on earth, saying, "There is scarcely a farmer in the Midwest over the age of twenty-one 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." He continues his joke by saying they do it on purpose because they are bored with their job and want to see what happens if they stick their limbs in "flapping fan belts and complex mechanisms." Never once does he acknowledge that farming is one of the most dangerous occupations on earth, and that thanks to American farmers' efforts even pompous writers have enough food to eat.

          "The Lost Continent" is dedicated to Bryson's father, who died before his return to America. Yet the book clearly shows Bryson had a number of issues with dear old dad.  He badmouths his father's frugality, at the same time he gripes about Americans' penchant to buy needless items such as electric nail buffers and silver toothpicks; then he proceeds to balk at having to pay $38 for a hotel room. And after pages of criticizing his father's ability to get lost in his own backyard, Bryson somehow manages to miss the Mississippi River on the way to Hannibal Missouri!

          Bryson does have one or two good things to say about America. He liked Custer's Battlefield and the food in Lancaster, PA. He found Columbus, Mississippi to be "a first-rate town." In fact, it almost achieved his expectations of Amalgam until he went into a restaurant on Main Street and had difficulty understanding the waitress' accent. "The average Southerner has the speech patterns of someone slipping in and out of consciousness," he said. He hated New York City, and denounced the entire population of the Western states as unfriendly. After years in England, he was overwhelmed by the vastness of America, and found the wide-open spaces to be too quiet.

          By the end of his trip Bryson finally realized the movies and television shows of his youth were fictional. Then he comes to another realization, "Who do I think I was fooling, I was a foreigner now," he writes.

          To be fair this was Bryson's first travel story, since then he has written 10 other well-received travel-genre books. However, his negative critique of America would be easier to swallow if it wasn't written by an expatriate. Yes, many Americans are over-weight. Yes, we are the ultimate consumers. But for me, "The Lost Continent" is a juvenile endeavor best left on bookstore shelves for Europeans to enjoy.

First published in The New Falcon Herald
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