Since my month of relative seclusion in northern Indiana this July, I've been intrigued by literature on the fly-over areas, the seemingly barren of notable culture, destinations untouched by most self-proclaimed travelers. Why on earth are there so few quality novels on small-town America?
There are no tribal dances, very few original musical styles, a general disinterest in cultural innovation, but does that make the small-town unworthy of a traveler's focus? Thankfully, what I was trying to grasp for this summer - with this insatiable interest in low-impact America - I found in Bill Bryson's The Lost Continent.
A native of Des Moines, Iowa, Bryson returns to his home land after two decades of residing in England, to rediscover the strips of land and town in between America's famed landmarks and cities. An experience inspired by the recent death of his father - a fan of the classic American road trip - Bryson sets off on a two-part adventure, starting from Iowa heading South and East, looping back to Iowa where he begins the Western route a season later.
His odometer clicks incessantly, as he burns up classic highways, using the idle car time to go on tangents that display his research and intellect, not to mention his whip-like wit. Bryson doesn't tell the stories you're expecting to read about America but the ones that popped into the news 20 years prior about obscure happenings in ordinary, nameless places.
His smart-alecky candor evokes elated exhales and child-like giggles from the reader, amazed that he utters the thoughts one wouldn't dare think themselves. Some remarks are blatant attempts to elicit an "Is he kidding?" query. I especially enjoy his rants on RV owners, fat American tourists, and the insular small-town mentality. And his search for baseball caps with plastic turds adorning the brims is just precious.
I felt many visceral connections between his tales/sentiment with my own from living in Wabash. One of those instances was his description of foreign exchange student treatment.
Well, Greta, which do you like better, the United States or Sweden?
As eye-opening as this sort of exchange could be, it often didn't go both ways. I remember maintaining an aloof state of mind to the lifestyles of our many exchange students. I couldn't point out Denmark or Brazil on a map, nor could I recall the names of their siblings or cities, because the interest and capacity to understand was not there. The flights, inconceivable; the differences, to vast to conceptualize. Instead, I would focus on their opinions of what existed in my bubble. Apparently, so did Bryson and his hometown crew.
It has the most perfect form of government, the most exciting sporting events, the tastiest food and amplest portions, the largest cars, the cheapest gasoline, the most abundant natural resources, the most productive farms, the most devastating nuclear arsenal, and the friendliest, most decent and most patriotic folks on earth. Countries just don't come any better.
His voice is awesomely satirical, his lists laced with dry humor, and the development of his narrative anti-climactic with an all-telling glance to the side that says it all. He had an ordinary experience on the road - open road in the morning, beers and motels at night - but his overall perspective on what he's experiencing is woven throughout in a thought-provoking manner. And even though his descriptions of rural America are most often unappetizing and quite unflattering, he still manages to make his destinations worth seeing in person, as any good travel narrative should do.
The Bottom Line
Bryson writes the book, not for foreigners hoping to learn about rural America, but for those Americans themselves who are open to ambiguous sarcasm poking fun and awareness at their familiar lifestyles. He takes massive swings to the extreme, describing an acidic inner monologue at times, but successfully remains open to and enamored with the eccentricities of the American people and this vast land. As much as he finds certain aspects of small towns laughable, he finds the same things endearing. He's an outsider looking in, while remembering his insider mentality from the days of yore. He holds these memories dear. Sounds familiar.
As many other critics have said, Bryson uses his book to declare his disappointment in the development of America toward a culture-less, gentrified, and blinkered existence. Amalgam, USA, the elusive 1950's style wonder-town, is nowhere to be found, in his eyes. But there are beautiful displays of what makes us unique and note-worthy in this world; those moments often being exactly what you would imagine Bryson detesting. The distances he travels feel endless, which points to the vast expanse of continental America and the remarkable idea that such a spread-out population with varying stimuli can be so adamantly linked. Bryson makes the reader see their own loose perseption of "America" in a slightly different light: a humorous one.
And never in his travels and pitiless verbal slayings does he regret the way he grew up. In fact, the miles and miles further compound his belief that Midwesterners really are the nicest people. By George, I think we share some sentiment.
Disclaimer: I borrowed this book from the library, and there are affiliate links throughout this post. This is a great book to take on vacation.