Jason's Reviews > The Lost Continent: Travels in Small Town America

The Lost Continent by Bill Bryson
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's review
Dec 17, 12

bookshelves: read-2012
Read in May, 2012

If you, like me, come to this from more recent Bryson (A walk in the woods, a brief history of nearly everything, home, etc.), go ahead and skip this. If you REALLY love small town america, skip it. If you are republican, skip it, if you are offended by the crude, skip it.

Still there? Okay, there is a lot to like about this book, but it is smothered in a large helping of overwrought, overly self-indulgent cynicism. Bryson is funny, at times uproariously hilarious, and these moments just work. Read the first chapter. If you find his description of Des Moines insulting, you won't like this, but if you can see past the gruffness, amid the hilarity is a love of this town he simultaneously cannot help but hate. These are the moments that work well, where Bryson sees past the schmaltz of small town charm and exposes what is wrong with it. There is something wrong with everything, and he really wants to get at it and rip it to shreds in hilarious ways.

When the book doesn't work, however, is when it is too self-important. Listening, for example, to Bryson proclaim about race is pitiful. He is so disconnected from the history or racial tensions in the US that every time he opens his mouth he is wrong. He is trying to get at the tensions, to expose hypocritical behavior, but he is unaware or willfully ignoring so much nuance that feels like being berated by an ignorant church lady. This applies elsewhere. He is so intent, for instance, on making an American's Don't Exercise screed that while driving through the Smoky Mountains, which he doesn't walk through, he stops at a few scenic overlooks, notices other cars at them and claims that there were no hikers at all. This occurs numerous times. It isn't like he is exactly wrong--American's don't hike that much--it is that he is going so far outside of reason to make his point that it fails to work. This is a tactic that works fine for humor (and when he is exaggerating for the sake of a joke, you will laugh out loud and frighten the people at Starbucks), but less so for social critique.

Bryson as a younger man is too bitter, too compelled to make his points and too ready to bend the truth for everything to come off very well. Later on, when he stopped trying to make political points for the sake of his own agenda and used the absurdities of human behavior (which is inherently political when one chooses a side to laugh at) as fodder for smart comedy or exasperated guffaws about humanity, Bryson became someone that you NEEDED to read. This early on, however, he is funny, he is smart and he has things to say--it's just that he's so sure that what he has to say is brilliant that he bludgeons his readers with self-righteous banality.

So gird your loins if you want to read this: there is plenty to get from this, plenty of laughs, many poignant pieces about his father and some interesting examination on nostalgia, but they're buried in some real stinkers of self-indulgent, unwitty snark.
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