Monday Books: Land of the mad and the fee

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The Independent Culture
TRAVELLING THROUGH America may be cheap and convenient, but that doesn't mean it ever takes you anywhere worth going. From its humungous retail stores on the outside of town, such as Bob's Discount Tire Warehouse or the Wholesale Bedding Galaxy, to its vast deserts, canyons and really tacky tract housing, America is a landscape in which everything grows bigger and more boring every day. While individualists such as Natty Bumppo or Huck Finn once rafted down rivers in search of free soil, today's highways are circulated endlessly by massive 18-wheelers bearing loads of crap to every factory outlet in sight.

In other words, the American jeremiad is no longer about seeking revelations about your nation, your God or yourself. Rather, it's about hunting down certifiable experience with your credit card, then bearing it home proudly on the roof of your car.

According to Bill Bryson, you can travel back and forth across America forever and never really discover anything you didn't already know. As a result of such comic diffidence, Bryson's best travel narratives (The Lost Continent, say, or Neither Here Nor There) are deliberately episodic and aimless. They don't record narrative progress but rather keep track of a series of increasingly foot-weary disenchantments.

The chief charm of Bryson's books lies in their precisely rendered details of everything mundane and obvious about American life, such as the unyielding corporate cheerfulness of suitably uniformed employees at chain stores and video outlets. Or the weird "landmarks" erected at the side of freeways to seduce the unwary into purchasing the unnecessary ("Experience the Atomic Rock Force Field... If You Dare! Just 147 Miles!" or "See the Dead Cow! Hours of Fun for the Whole Family!").

Then, of course, there's the baffling bounty of America's supermarket shelves, heaped full of such remarkable inventions as "jelly creme pies, moon pies, pecan spinwheels, peach mellos, root beer buttons, chocolate fudge devil dogs and a whipped marshmallow sandwich spread called Fluff, which came in a tub large enough to bath a baby in". For Bryson, America is awesome in its specificity. So much of everything, but none of it worth buying (with the possible exception of "breakfast pizza", that is.)

An American who spent most of his adult life in London and Yorkshire, Bryson returned to his native country in 1996, when he began writing the weekly columns for The Mail on Sunday collected here. Being an expatriate from two countries at once, Bryson's casual invective for everything shoddy about modern culture is committed with open-handed good spirit and rarely draws partisan lines. Bryson finds himself almost as stupid as, well, the rest of the world's stupid people. He considers the outdoor life just as confusing as the indoor one. And while there is probably nothing more awful to him than American television, he can still recall some pretty distressing nights checking out "featured highlights" in good old Britain, such as "Carry On Ogling, a nature special on the maggots of Lake Baikal, and a new Jeremy Beadle series called Ooh, I Think I May Be Sick. But even at its grimmest, even when you find yourself choosing between Prisoner: Cell Block H and Peter Snow being genuinely interested in European farm subsidies, British TV cannot begin to touch American television for the capacity to make you want to go out and lie down on a motorway".

The column format is perfectly suited to Bryson's self-derogatory, almost sheepish sense of comic diversion. Each section is just long enough for him to take potshots at any phoniness to catch his eye. As a result, Notes From a Big Country is, in many ways, one of his best books. And it never takes itself too seriously, even when it has important things to say.

Like Bryson, Daniel Jeffreys' new travel book explores those American spaces people enjoy knowing about but would just as soon not visit for themselves. In many ways, Jeffreys' voice provides an antithesis to Bryson's. His prose possesses a fine, documentary clarity; he's seeking insights rather than gags; and he rarely ventures anywhere that doesn't offer a suitable dose of melodrama.

Keeping to the off-beat byways of America's Midwest, he encounters aspiring vampires, Jesus-worshipping rattlesnake-handlers, self-loading bounty hunters and the usual assortment of saucer-watchers, contract killers and obsessive compulsives, not to mention a healthy batch of fornicators (in Emmett, Idaho, it turns out, they put such notorious felons behind bars. And good riddance).

Despite much fine writing, though, America's Back Porch book feels a bit too familiar, and even its oddest subjects recall documentaries on Channel 4. But then, for all its vastness, there's something about America which is never new any more. As both of these books illustrate, there's probably too much of it to go around.