Inspiring Older Readers

posted on 31 Oct 2017

The Lost Continent: Travels in small town America by Bill Bryson

I’m inherently suspicious of ‘funny’ books – they are frequently quite the opposite and if you make the mistake of reading them you can usually feel your intelligence beginning to drain out of your ears. Some books are, however, witty and amusing without trying to be ‘funny’ and some can be laugh-out-loud because of the acuity of their observations and their ability to slice through to some deeper absurd truth.

I first read Bill Bryson’s The Lost Continent back in 1989 when it was first released and I remember several occasions on public transport where I was left helpless with laughter – and nothing raises British defensive antennae faster than someone giggling to themselves on a train or bus. This was well before Bill Bryson, a US journalist who relocated to the UK in the 1970s, became something of a national treasure and Chair of the Campaign to protect rural England.

I was also deeply gratified that contemporary US reviews of the book were almost all negative – ranging from the sniffy to the downright hostile. Bryson was, I think, seen by American critics as traitorous and they took substantial umbrage over the way Bryson dissected small town America. Typically they saw him as bitter and twisted while his British readers were just being left helpless with laughter.

Bryson’s trip across America was prompted by the need to go back to his home town, Des Moines, following the death of his father. Rather than the cosy nostalgic trip he anticipated, he finds the experience a confusing set of mixed emotions. His trip to Iowa to visit his grandparents house, for example, turns out to be a disappointment – the house he remembers is in fact just an old ‘shack’ surrounded by a host of other poor ‘cheap, little houses’.

I personally can’t get enough of the trip to Amish country and dinner at a Pennsylvania Dutch restaurant with his brother and family. It’s a glorious bit of writing crammed with the pleasure of gluttony and the regret of over-eating:

I kept eating. It was too delicious to pass up. Buttons popped off my shirt. My trousers burst open. I barely had enough strength to lift my spoon, but I kept shovelling the stuff in. It was grotesque. Food began to leak from my ears. And still I ate……..We got in the car, too full to speak, and headed towards the distant glow of Three Mile Island. I lay on the back seat, my feet in the air, and moaned softly.. I vowed that never again in my life would I eat a single morsel of food…

I was also left chuckling to myself by his account of a dyspeptic bus trip into New York with a band of misfits:

You only go on a long-distance bus in the United States because either you cannot afford to fly or – and this is really licking the bottom of the barrel in America – you cannot afford a car…. I stared out of the window, feeling ill, and passed the time by trying to imagine circumstances less congenial than this. But apart from being dead or at a Bee Gees concert I couldn’t think of one.

He’s not cynical or splenetic about everything – he loves the Baseball Hall of Fame and Elvis’s birthplace for example – and he’s ultimately kind about Des Moines and its people but I think the American critics simply couldn’t get past the idea of an American saying something, anything, negative or cynical about America.

And that’s pretty much why the British took him to their hearts.

Paperback and hardback copies of the book are easily and cheaply available. If you’re looking for a light read and you want to bore family and friends by reading them chunks they just must hear, this is the book for you.


Terry Potter

October 2017