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

The Lost Continent by Bill Bryson
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Oct 04, 14

bookshelves: travel

The Lost Continental: A Look at Bill Bryson

I must preface this essay by saying that if everyone didn’t like this Bill Bryson book as much as I didn’t (at least the person he is in this book), he would be about the wealthiest author on the planet. At least I bought it. I have several of his books and have read all of them. Bill Bryson can be assured that with detractors like me, he doesn’t need fans. I should also say that I have lived a full one fifth of my life outside of the United States and I don’t care if someone makes fun of anything and everything American (I’ve done a bit of bashing myself).

A dyspeptic man in his middle thirties, whose constant bad mood seems more like someone in their mid seventies, drives around the U.S. and complains about absolutely everything he sees, smells, hears, and eats. If this sounds like your idea of a good time, read Bill Bryson’s The Lost Continent: Travels in Small Town America (Abacus, 1990).

He constantly mocks small towns in America by referring to them by such names as Dog Water, Dunceville, Urinal, Spigot, and Hooterville—and this is in the first five pages. Don’t worry about him running out of clever names for hick towns; Bryson has a million of them and he uses every single one.

The only things about which Bryon has a favorable view are natural wonders and the homes of rich people. He marvels at the obscenely-posh residences of ultra-wealthy, early 20th century industrialists on Mackinac Island which were built before income taxes and most labor laws. He would probably be thrilled with pre-revolutionary France or Czarist Russia. One of his very few favorable reviews of American cities was of the ski town of Stowe, Vermont which caters almost exclusively to the rich.

When he is traveling through the southwest he complains about the Mexican music on the radio. He seems more content to resort to chauvinism than to come to some sort of understanding about the culture he is visiting. In my opinion, it’s always more interesting to praise something that you understand than to mock something that you don’t. I would have taken the time to translate a few of the songs and tell readers what they are about. In fact, I have done this and Mexican ranchera music is all about stories of love, heartbreak, and often violence which describe the cowboy culture of Mexico’s northern territories. Bryson implies that the people who listen to this music are just too stupid to realize that it is only one tune played over and over.

He gripes about a weatherman on TV who seems rather gleeful at the prospect of a coming snow storm yet Bryson seems to relish in the idea of not liking anything that he experiences in his journey. His entire trip is like a storm he passes through. Just once I wanted him to roll into some town that he liked and get into an interesting conversation with one of its residents.

Here are examples of the cheeriness with which Bryson opens a few of his chapters:

“I drove on and on across South Dakota. God, what a flat and empty state.”

“What is the difference between Nevada and a toilet? You can flush a toilet.” (One reviewer called Bryson "witty.")

“I was headed for Nebraska. Now there’s a sentence you don’t want to have to say too often if you can possibly help it.”

“In 1958, my grandmother got cancer of the colon and came to our house to die.”
This last event must have brought untold joy to the young writer.

Tell us more, Bill. His narrative is more tiresome than any Kansas wheat field he may have passed on his road trip through hell. Most Americans seem to be either fat, or stupid, or both in the eyes of Bryson. I can only assume that Bryson himself is some sort or genius body builder. Just one time I wanted him to talk to a local resident over a beer or a cup of coffee. I wanted him to describe his partner in conversation as other than fat or stupid. Not even one time do we hear about a place from somebody who lives there. We could just as easily have read the guidebooks as Bryson did and he could have stayed home and saved himself thousands of miles of misery.

Whenever someone starts to tell me about somewhere they went I ask them to describe their favorite thing about the trip, be it a place, food, the people, or whatever. If they start to complain about the place I either change the subject or walk away if I can. Travel is supposed to broaden the mind, not make it narrower.
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Comments (showing 1-22 of 22) (22 new)

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Sarita perfect. This sums it up.


message 2: by Noran (new)

Noran Miss Pumkin thank you from saving me from this book!


message 3: by Lorenzo (last edited Jun 24, 2008 01:07PM) (new) - rated it 1 star

Lorenzo Pilla Couldn't agree more! I read this for my book club and somehow my literary companions thought he was hilarious. I hope Bryson has since gone back to his English estate where he can maltreat his servants.


Elizabeth I agree 100%. I was so disappointed after hearing from so many people how funny Bryson is... apparently, not my sense of humor.


Andrea Brilliantly stated. And I swear, I read no other reviews before I wrote my own - and I was genuinely surprised to see others' negative reviews of this horrid, obnoxious book. I spent several pages thinking, had I been a passenger, how much I'd liked to have driven away while he was using a gas station restroom...


Joseph I absolutely agree. I had to quit at page 86, which starts with "South Carolina was boring."


message 7: by Mary (new)

Mary Oh my gosh! It seems everybody has read this man's books. I haven't but thought he must be the greatest thing since light bread as his books are everywhere. Could this many goodreads folks be wrong? I don't think so. Thanks for the warnings.


Fred You should read "Notes from a Small Island". He lampoons his own adopted country much the same way he rags on the US. I do agree that he is a bit of a snob at times.


message 9: by Leftbanker (last edited Apr 19, 2014 11:34PM) (new) - rated it 1 star

Leftbanker Carol wrote: "I really hated this book, too. It turned me off from reading any other Bryson books. But if I did attempt one of his other books, which would you recommend?"

Sunburnt Country about Australia was good because Bryson seemed to like the place. I think I reviewed it here on Goodreads.


message 10: by Alan (new) - rated it 4 stars

Alan I think there are two main factors for many of those 1-star-ratings:
1. Some Americans can't understand that somebody could think that their country has its faults like all countries do.
2. They're put off because Bryson is an open Democrat and makes fun of Ronald Reagan and Dwight D. Eisenhower.


message 11: by Leftbanker (last edited Jul 19, 2012 10:57PM) (new) - rated it 1 star

Leftbanker Alan Mattli wrote: "I think there are two main factors for many of those 1-star-ratings:
1. Some Americans can't understand that somebody could think that their country has its faults like all countries do.
2. They're..."


Did you even bother to read my fucking review? You are wrong on both counts.

1) I live in Spain. In my life I have lived in three foreign countries for a total of ten years. I'm hardly the person who can't find fault with America.

2) I'm a diehard socialist and always have been, ever since my undergraduate days as a student of economics at Indiana University. I’m not and never was any sort of fan of Ronald Reagan.

Your criticisms have nothing to do with what I wrote. My 1 star rating is pretty well explained in my review, but it's just an opinion—something actually sought out on this site. But you haven’t written a single review so what do you know?


Homeschoolmama Thanks for your insightful comments. I tried to read this book and couldn't get through it for the same reasons you mention here.. Pages and pages of the same complaints. I do enjoy Bryson's style, how word choices, but I had to put the book down. just too boring after awhile.


message 13: by Kristen (new)

Kristen Gunther This pretty much sums up every issue I have with Bill Bryson. Thanks!


Flapane As an Italian who has read the first 10 pages so far and has been a few days in Iowa, I must confess that he somehow depicted well the principal aspects of Iowa and Des Moines. It may sound rude and boring because he always complains like an 80 years old coot, but I think it's just plain british sarcasm... I guess that's what you get when you live 20 years in the UK.
I'm looking forward to reading the rest of the book in the next weeks, and see if my first impressions had been wrong.


Kimberley It's almost as though living in the UK has turned him into a jaded Brit...I'm a Brit and not nearly as jaded. He turned several sights that I saw during my own great American road trip into utter piss. This was such a horrendous book from Bryson.


Gayle Amen!


message 17: by Alex ☯the last Took standing☯ (last edited May 27, 2013 10:53PM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Alex ☯the last Took standing☯ The book is, by far, the worst of his I've read, but for me it has at least 3 stars. Maybe it is because I'm not from the USA and I didn't get offended. I still think you took him too seriously, and Bryson it's the last writer you should take too seriously. Your critic it's exceptionally well written, though. Congrats on that!


Leftbanker I'm not offended; I just think he's a little creep. He sounds like the last person on earth I would ever travel with because he's a whiner. Compare this book with his book about Australia where he seems to enjoy himself a bit. Paul Theroux is also a little whiny asshole in his travel books. Why do they bother leaving home?


Kristina I'm in the middle of reading this and even though I generally like it, I do like your review as well.

Many people fall for his complaints and grumpyness. Often as he gets distressed the reader is sitting back laughing at his vexation because it's almost like slapstick comedy in writing. It's definitely not everyone's cup of tea, but Bryson sometimes makes a go for that sort of humour, probably because he feels that it goes with most of the readers.

I didn't care for him putting all those fat people on the pan - not cool to see such bashing coming from a middle-aged bloke who's not exactly thin and sporty himself. Kinda made me embarrassed in his place because it's pretty icky conduct.

What annoys me even more is that the book lacks some (or, better said, any) touch with the locals. Places are not just buildings and trees. The only times when he talks to anyone is to get away ASAP and subsequently mock their dialects. It's as if he dreads the people and thinks himself to be in permanent danger amongst 'crazy armed Southerners'. No fun there. Luckily he makes up for it with some of his remarks. I think there is still some pretty decent wit among all that heartless bashing.


message 20: by Will (new) - rated it 3 stars

Will Hickox Are you folks unfamiliar with the concept of humor? Bryson obviously didn't set out to write a fair, balanced, helpful guide to traveling small-town America. Yes, he comes across as bored, cynical, uncomfortable, and somewhat snooty; yes, everyone he meets is a fat hick; and yes, he constantly gets into hapless situations. He's exaggerating things for comic effect. You all seem offended that Bryson didn't write a sappy, nostalgic love letter to Main Street U.S.A. In fact, his persona in the book sets out to find that very thing and is quickly disillusioned. It's called satire.


Leftbanker To Will,

I actually get paid to write humor so spare me the lecture on comedy and satire. Here’s one thing that I know about humor: comedy is never unanimous. If you think that calling a town Urinal or Dogwater is funny then I’m not going to challenge you on that. And as I point out in my review “it’s always more interesting to praise something that you understand than to mock something that you don’t.” I’ve lived in Spain for almost eight years now and it would never occur to me to be a whiny little asshole about life here. I avoid the things I don’t like and I cherish everything else. It’s like he wants to have a miserable time in this book.

Whenever someone starts to tell me about somewhere they went I ask them to describe their favorite thing about the trip, be it a place, food, the people, or whatever. If they start to complain about the place I either change the subject or walk away if I can. Travel is supposed to broaden the mind, not make it narrower.

Contrast this book with his book about Australia, a place he seems to generally like. I found it a much better read and I didn’t want to leave the author in a shallow grave in the middle of nowhere.


message 22: by Brett (new)

Brett I felt more than a regular twinge of the man's pretentiousness in the "Walk in the Woods" book. I don't recall it being outright intolerable, as I did finish it rather quickly. it was just his view on everyone he met. His upper class disdain. So thank you for the review and comment discussions, I will refrain from checking this one out.


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