The Lost Continent: Travels in Small Town America by Bill Bryson
1989, 293 pages, Abacus Press, London
Review score: ** out of *****

My father was born in Boston. After finishing school, he left for the West Coast and never returned for more than a brief visit. Some people seem born to live else where and for my father, California offered vistas that were closed to him in Boston.

Bill Bryson, the author of "The Lost Continent" went ever farther abroad than my father. After growing up in Iowa, he moved to England as soon he got the chance. But, just as there are still certain threads of Boston in my father, Bryson still had American roots. "The Lost Continent" describes a road trip that Bryson took after the death of his father. Borrowing his mother's Chevette, he makes a huge circle through the United States, traveling almost fourteen thousand miles and visiting all but ten of the lower fourty eight states. Fueled by his nightly six packs of beer, terrible food and a sarcastic wit, Bryson makes this mind bendingly long trip through the American vastness.

Bryson grew up in Des Moines, Iowa. "Somebody had to". The flat expanses of the midwest provide some of the best fodder for Bryson's humor. The forgotten towns he visits are rechristened with names like Dogwater and Colostomy. Across America he finds strip malls and food that even the English would despise. Overweight tourists, motor homes and gift shops clog his destinations. A Tastee Delite Drive-in and a Crap-o-Rama Wax Museum obscure the view of Gettysburg. In Philadelphia Bryson finds slums that scare him so much that he is "singing through his sphincter". To his delight, he discovers Howard Stern on the radio, greeting his female callers with "candour and a measure of purience" and questions about whether they are wearing panties. Bryson on occasions is hilarious. Although he has native roots, he has an outsider's view of the absurdity in American society. But after the first half of the book, it starts to drag. Bryson is not a good enough writer to carry off the endless succession of towns, cities and countryside. Like the huge vistas of America, the book seems to go on and on. By the time Bryson finally gets to the West Coast the book bogs down and I felt that Bryson had been totally overloaded by the huge expanses of his native land.

Ian Kaplan - 2/96

I got a flame or two on the above review of The Lost Continent. One person suggested that it was unfair to be so critical of an author on the basis of one book. After all, if you had only read The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling you would not have the same opinion of Gibson's writing that you would have if you had read Neuromancer. But I am not alone my my views on Bryson. See Jeff Stark's review in Salon of Bryson's recent essay collection I'm a Stranger Here Myself.

Ian Kaplan - 5/99

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