Books: On the trail of a lonesome gag

Does Bill Bryson need company? Do bears... live in the woods? Dea Birkett on a solitary trip; A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson Doubleday, pounds 16.99
Bill Bryson is a writer you can rely on. He's not going to confuse you with fancy literary tricks, nor will he abandon the persona we have come to love. He never promises any great adventures, just a series of snapshot encounters and pithy dialogue composed mainly of competing putdowns. And at the centre of his hugely enjoyable books is Bill Bryson - self- deprecating, wry, hilarious. When you buy a book by him, you know what you are getting.

Then along comes A Walk in the Woods. There are few scrapes and scant humour here. Instead, acres of forest wrap around the not-so-intrepid trekker, forcing him to delve into long passages on the wonders of nature which surround him and the trudging history of earlier walkers. Even the author himself whinges: "I think we've had enough science for one chapter". This is not classic Bryson at all. This is Wainwright-meets-Nigel Williams at his travel writing worst.

A Walk in the Woods is the story of Bryson's failed attempt to walk the Appalachian Trail, the longest footpath in the world. It is an odd task to set himself. He is not essentially a travel writer; he is a satirist. His books have always been about himself, the flawed hero, discovering who he is or where he came from, and exposing the foibles of where he is going to. Here, he attempts to make the journey itself the story.

Unfortunately, his journey is not a very good one. The trail stretches over 2000 miles from Georgia to Maine, and Bryson's goal is to conquer every inch. But after 500 miles, blistered and (one suspects) bored, he gives up. "The woods is one boundles singularity." The bears, bisons and knife-wielding lunatics he had read about did not materialise.

People and towns have heretofore been Bryson's staple ingredients. He is a man who is attracted towards tarmac. Even trudging through the wilderness, he seems to stumble across an alarming number of US Highways and few natural phenomena. Or perhaps he just prefers, and excels at, describing the trappings of civilisation. Dialogue with strangers has always been the most insightful and funniest part of any Bryson book.

But although the Appalachian Trail is rich in "meadowy expanses of mountaintop" and the "twitter of birds", you can travel days and days without seeing anyone. Bryson's travelling companion Katz, whom we met in Neither Here Nor There, offers the best chance of providing the foil on which his writing flourishes. But walking in the woods was not conducive to comical chatter. "We existed in a kind of companionable silence," which might have been blissful climbing a stout hill but does not make riveting reading.

There are a few reminders that the narrator is the same man we met and loved in The Lost Continent and Notes from a Small Island. Toiletting procedures are still dwelled upon. In fact, the excretory attraction of the wilderness was one of the main spurs, Bryson claims, for embarking on the journey. "I wanted a little of that swagger that comes with being able to gaze at a far horizon through eyes of chipped granite and say with a slow, manly sniff, `Yeah, I've shit in the woods'."

However, it takes almost 300 pages of weaving through monotonous tree trunks before that comfortingly familiar Bryson anecdote emerges: the dog-sniffing-crotch story. "Take it from me: you do not wanna pet that dog," warns a man in Maine. "Some hiker petted him last week when I told him not to and it bit him in the balls.... Thru-hiker, he was. Come all the way from Georgia. Long way to come to get your balls nipped." And with that brief flash of classic Bryson, the companionable silence returns.