BOOK REVIEW / Bison with Mr Breakfast and a tornado chaser: Storm country - Pete Davies: Heinemann, pounds 16.99

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The Independent Online
BEFORE Pete Davies set off through the centre of America, he decided he should buy his own wheels. He was looking for something that wouldn't shudder and break up during the 7,500 miles he intended to cover, and he found it in Coffeyville, Kansas: a second-hand Ford pick-up truck the size of a traction engine. Many would have balked at the reading on the clock: 117,843 miles. But as Davies says, 'In 10 years in Kansas, that's the equivalent of one careful lady owner.'

The vastness of America is a travel-writing cliche, but it gets refreshed in Davies's gag. Do we really need another voyage through the American heartlands in the company of a mildly alienated British novelist? Well, yes, if the novelist is going to lay the details down deadpan ('I had breakfast at Mr Breakfast') and whip up the occasional breezy summary ('No one should be surprised that God gets good ratings in these parts. Kansas is one of His more imperious performances.').

But what if the novelist starts bothering himself with the kind of question Davies asks in his introduction: 'And me - what did I want? What was I doing, bang in that heart of America?' Because then we're along for a rather different kind of ride.

After the 1990 World Cup, Pete Davies came back from Italy with a stack of interviews and some extraordinary first-hand experiences and knocked them together in All Played Out. The book was rough-edged, but it scoured out some of the dead wood that clutters a lot of football writing. If, back then, you were looking for someone to take the American travelogue and flash-fry its sentimentality, Davies would have been a good bet. The disappointing thing about Storm Country is that he hasn't quite done the job: though briskly charred at the edges, the book has been left tender and pulpy in the middle.

Fans of All Played Out will recognise some of the prose tactics here. There's the repetition of key words and phrases: 'History' (an abbreviation of the slang phrase, 'I'm/you're/it's history') and 'In the heart of America'. And there's the trick that involves holding back a phrase and granting it a new paragraph.

For dramatic emphasis.

It follows quite naturally that someone interested in Stuart Pearce should also have a fondness for massively destructive weather patterns. Perhaps the best sequence in Storm Country is where Davies goes hunting with Val Castor, a professional tornado chaser. The radio crackles and Val puts his foot down in pursuit of a fast-moving cloudbank, shouting technical things such as 'it's got good lowering on it, and it's in back of the rainshaft'. Evidently, if a tornado hits your trailer home, it leaves nothing behind but the axles, and it even bends those out of true, so you can't use them again.

Such passages brook no nonsense. But then here is Davies in Chapter 1, witnessing a pick-up truck (not his own) slipping into a ditch: 'Sprays and divots of black earth and bright grass flew up against the ocean of fire and blood in the sunset sky.' When someone starts banging on about fire and blood in a sunset, you can be sure they are either a travel writer vamping it up or a psychoanalyst, and either way it's time to think about ducking out.

Still more incongruous are the moments when Davies, who comes from Wales, starts pretending he is American. 'I needed badly to get some place nice again,' he writes, or, worst of all, 'What did this was a few years ago, the Nebraska legislature passed the Choice Bill.' It must be tempting to assimilate yourself in this way, but it's possible to go too far.

And sure enough, Davies is soon walking in a field full of buffalo. All local wisdom suggests you should never wander near these animals unless you particularly want several hundred pounds of leather standing on your chest, but Davies gamely leaps the fence: 'The sound of their breathing, basso snuffles and grunts; the faint crackle and thud of their slow, heavy hooves dully impacting on the dirt and thin grass; the sound of my heart racing, in the heart of America . . .'

When that sentence ends, it's well on the way to becoming a Simple Minds lyric. How vast does a country have to get before it bulks larger in a travelogue than the writer's personal fantasies?

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