BOOK REVIEW / A thick, rich slice of American pie: 'Made in America' - Bill Bryson: Secker & Warburg, 15 pounds

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The Independent Online
BILL BRYSON's last book, The Lost Continent, had one of the highest laugh-per- page counts of any book in history, and that disguised the occasional savagery with which the author viewed his homeland - a nation of overweight lamebrains, 'completely junked out'. But the outbreaks of caustic distaste never lasted long because, in his heart, Bryson loves the junk himself.

This is a man whose favourite part of the Sunday New York Times is the advertising supplement, a man enraptured by his country because it's the home of the electric nail buffer and the musical shoe-tree - and no passage in The Lost Continent was more revealing than the visit to the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan. Roaming the piled-high masses of industrial arcana, Bryson worked up a warm glow at 'just how incredibly inventive America has been in its time, what a genius it has had for practical commercial innovation'.

So now he's written a catalogue of that inventiveness, and the phrases he applied to the Ford Museum might just as well be applied to Made In America. It's 'the most indescribable assortment of stuff', 'a cross between an attic and a junk shop'; in the guise of a history of the English language in America, it's really a jubilant trawl through the actual as well as the verbal fecundity of the USA. It's a story whose heroes are Thomas Edison, Charles Goodyear, Henry G Selfridge, Benjamin Franklin, George Eastman: Goodyear spending a lifetime of debt surrounded by 'tubs of noisome slop', trying to vulcanise rubber; Eastman developing the principles of mass marketing to sell his Kodaks; Edison driving his assistants so hard they were known as the 'the Insomnia Squad'.

Among the deft thumbnail sketches, Franklin stands out as America's ultmate Renaissance Man. Beside his political, scientific and literary achievements - 'he wrote essays on everything from how to select a mistress (take an older woman) to how to avoid flatulence (drink perfume)' - he also found time for an astonishing amount of fornication. Considering the etymology of the verb 'to roger', Bryson remarks: 'We may as well have called it 'to benjamin', such was the portly Franklin's commitment to the pastime'.

Writing of these men and their boundlessly American energies, Bryson is part Rabelais, part train-spotter, part schoolkid in the science museum; 'little things are worth looking at', he tells us, and proceeds to tell us about every little thing he can think of. You want to know about the first car radio? You want to know who Gordon Bennett was? You want the history of the air-brake, the escalator, the cash register, the supermarket, the motel and the shopping mall?

It's all here, from manned flight to breakfast cereal, in a book that's appropriately and entirely American in its manner - bursting at the seams, vigorous, discursive and disposable. It's history as take-out, with a side order of everything; not so much a book, in fact, as an unbridled orgy of customer satisfaction.

How serious Bryson's intent may have been, amid the reckless welter of weird and captivating facts, is hard to tell. He casts a comically disdainful eye over the staggering ineptitude of the early colonists, and is in general an enthusiastic debunker of patriotic myth. He reserves a sardonic ire for racism and xenophobia (the prevailing attitude of his compatriots, he says, has always been that 'while immigration was unquestionably a wise and prescient thing in the case of one's parents or grandparents, it really ought to stop now') and he sets his face against that with the positive conclusion that the present immigration of Hispanics and Asians can only enrich America further. He also takes an intelligently balanced look at the PC debate, and he is wise throughout - this is, indeed, his theme - about the way practical things affect us far more than politicians ever can.

But for the most part he is an entertainer, too busy enjoying himself to chase any weighty issue too far. Often passages that begin as history collapse into little more than ebullient lists; his account of the motor car post-1945 is mainly an opportunity to go wild with relish over the names manufacturers dreamt up for their products' wizard new features: Speed-Trigger Fordomatic Transmission, PowerFlite, Range Selector, Prest-O- Justment Seats, Push-Button Control Wrinkle-Resistant RoboTop Convertible Roof.

In less skilled hands, 430 pages of so much relish would be an over-rich dish; happily, however, Bryson remains as funny as ever, and a writer who works with such apparent facility can be excused the odd shameless bout of gourmandising, the odd blow-out on high-calorie verbiage.

Besides, it's a serious enough point that the energetic richness of American diction is a natural mirror to the energetic richness of the country's economic history; this is, after all, a tale of turbulent boom, of fantastical expansion, of freeways and fast food and department stores 'democratising luxury'. Even at the time of the War of Independence, the average American was better off than his or her British counterpart. And by the second half of the 19th century, when American amateurs in kitchens and garages were inventing just about everything the world now takes for granted, it was entirely natural, for example, that these hectically active people would be press-ganging nouns into use as verbs: to bankroll, boost, engineer, progress and, of course, to splurge.

So Bryson splurges with the best of them. Whatever the subject - industry, travel, food, shopping, advertising, the movies, sport, war, sex - his investigations are compendious, his fascinations obsessive, his curiosity indiscriminate. It does feel sometimes as if he knows too much for our own good - but if you start asking whether you really need to know that the Chevrolet logo is derived from the wallpaper pattern in a Paris hotel room, then you're questioning the grab-bag ethos of the whole venture.

I was enchanted to learn that the motto of the United States, E Pluribus Unum, comes from a recipe for salad in an early Virgil poem; it would not, however, be a particularly appropriate motto for this book. Of Made In America we might say instead, From many things . . . well, many more things, and then some. So it may not be entirely coherent, but neither is its subject; the work of a language junkie set loose in a continent's- worth of anecdotes, this is a shamelessly exuberant tale of rising skyscrapers and collapsing taste, and it does America proud.

Robert Winder returns next week.