Bill Bryson is kind of a jerk. This thought crossed my mind once every few chapters as I read his 1989 novel The Lost Continent. This was my first experience reading Bryson, though his name and bookjackets are so ubiquitous I figure he must have some friends at the New York Times or Barnes & Noble or something. Granting room for the possibility that Bill Bryson Narrator is as much a character as any, I found that in The Lost Continent the Bryson Narrator is in turn judgemental, cranky, elitist, disparaging, borderline racist and sadly determined to be unimpressed by most anything. I’m also well-aware that my judgements of Bryson might be unfair, and my observations would have no place here if he had not, 100-some pages into the book, decided to make his way up through Virginia to dedicate roughly 9 pages to a stay in Washington, DC.
The Lost Continent is Bryson’s travelogue of his nearly-14,000-mile trip across and around and within America. I thought maybe for a second that this trip must have been bankrolled by a Tina Fey-esque book advance, but as The Lost Continent pre-dated such tomes as A Walk in the Woods and A Short History of Nearly Everything by more than a decade, I’m not quite sure who ponied up the dough. All I can say is I’m infinitely jealous, which you can add to other wrinkles in my credibility, not least of which being that I was still in diapers when Bryson made his journey. After two decades of living in the UK, Bryson decides to return to Des Moines, Iowa, land of his birth, and set out in search for the America of the American Dream. The America of Leave it to Beaver, where the corner druggist, while he’s out sweeping his stoop, waves to a young Jimmy Stewart-esque individual as he rides his bike down Main Street on his way to the sandlot to play ball. Suffice to say, Bryson winds up disappointed more often than not, as the America he witnesses features less tree-lined avenues and picturesque town squares, and more destitute, ramshackle homes and gaudy and tasteless absurdity.
It’s an interesting experience, reading Bryson’s travelogue today; I think part of what makes him seem so whiny at times is that I didn’t grow up with grand illusions of that America, or if I did, I didn’t have them very long. We come at it now with the post-modern post-irony brand of cynicism, one that isn’t surprised or outraged by bureaucratic inefficiency but is also somewhat offended by Bryson’s poking fun at Southern accents and overweight people who shop at Wal-Mart because, hey man, they’re just living too. I can’t help but say it: Bryson pokes fun because he can, he wields the pen (and the bank account that bought 14,000 miles of gas and three months of hotels) and America pretty much has to sit there and be unwittingly judged by his standards. His standards being that America should be 100% authentic, clean, svelte (though he himself admits to being a “slobby, overweight man”), should have their milk delivered to them in bottles and listen to a commercial-less Beatles marathon on the radio rather than “that kind of aye-yi-yi Mexican music that’s always sung by strolling musicians with droopy mustaches and big sombreros in the sort of restaurants where high-school teachers take their wives.”
I won’t continue to lead my Bryson-hating into the land of “oppressive patriarchal hegemony” and “utopic nostalgia,” don’t worry. Because I promised to discuss Chapter 12. And because in between the times I was consumed with how -mean-spirited and crotchety he could be, I found Bryson Narrator to be truthful and funny. Laugh-aloud-on-the bus and-disturb-all-the-people-around-you-funny. (This is not to be confused with need-to-close-my-office-door-and-take-a-moment-to-regain-breathing-pattern funny.) His jokes are sometimes inappropriate and deal in self-deprecation and sexual terms, and of this I approve. If I knew Bill Bryson, I would probably like him. Besides, half of the mean-spirited, rude, semi-obnoxious things he thinks to say to people he meets he doesn’t actually say. He says normal, polite things to people’s faces and just judges silently and internally, like most people. Well, except for then afterwards he wrote it all down in a book and published it. He reminds me of someone I once dated, who was branded the nicest guy ever by those he met, but I’m sure if he wrote a non-fiction travelogue it would contain snarky remarks about how terrible just about everything around was and how it invaded his fantasy of how things should be. Come to think of it, I think he liked Bill Bryson. But Bryson is credible, it’s not that I necessarily disbelieve that half the places he visits are cruddy and unimpressive, it just seems like his expectations of greatness for every small town are a set-up for disappointment. Many pages contain the schema, “I expected BlankTown to be the best thing I ever saw, but in real life, it was a shithole just like the rest of the places I’ve seen.” Still many more contain phrases such as, “I went begrudgingly on to Nevada/Utah/Wyoming/Montana, because who doesn’t?” (I’m paraphrasing, to borrow a Bryson device.)
Bryson revisits Washington in part to compare it to a visit his family had made here during his childhood, one of the common tropes of the book. Then, he writes, DC was hot and sweaty pre-AC, besides being unbearably loud. He also saw someone who’d been shot, and was alarmed as a child by the enduring socially-enforced segregation of whites and blacks in the city. Things have changed since those days, he finds, nothing among other things that “Nowadays, black people sit at luncheon counters, so it’s not as easy to get a seat, but it’s more fair.” Also, no one goes to the Washington Senators games anymore — true enough, they go to the Washington Nationals now, because after 33 years without a baseball franchise, the MLB chose to relocate the Expos to DC rather than in the other appealing options of Puerto Rico or New Jersey. (Something tells me they might have gotten a bigger fan base at either of those options.)
My favorite part of the DC chapter of The Lost Continent was his description of the full-time White House protesters, though it too, is somewhat injudicious. “Across the street there is a permanent settlement of disaffected people and crazies, living in cardboard boxes, protesting the Central Intelligence Agency controlling their thoughts from outer space. (Well, wouldn’t you?)” Directly afterwards though, he goes on to complain that a homeless person then asked him for a quarter and claims to have responded, “‘Why don’t you go and mug somebody…It has more dignity.'” Bryson then goes on to be disappointed that the Smithsonians have lost their attic-like eclectic charm as they’ve branched out and aggrandized.
He’s also weirded out by all the joggers on the mall. “I kept thinking, shouldn’t they be running the country, or at least destabilizing some Central American government? …Don’t you usually have something more important to do at 10:30 on a Wednesday morning than pull on a pair of Reeboks and go sprinting for forty-five minutes.” What he clearly doesn’t know, is that Capitol professionals push themselves so incessantly that, as I’ve said before, their only two sources of release are 1. to jog long distances and 2. to drink copious amounts at Happy Hour. Outside of this, Bryson doesn’t have much to say about his experiences in the capitol of our country. In fact, he has more to say about Mark Twain’s sort-of homestead and the underwhelming nature of the Mississippi River under gray skies. But there is this: an unsurprisingly satisfying moment at that favored spot — the Tidal Basin. “When it is lit up at night it is entrancing, with the lights of the memorial smeared across the pool of water called the Tidal Basin. I must have sat for an hour or more just listening to the rhythmic swish of distant traffic, the sirens and car horns, the distant sounds of people shouting, people singing, people being shot.” Well, alright. At least he doesn’t mention the Cherry Blossoms.