Title: The Lost Continent: Travels in Small Town America
Author: Bill Bryson
Genre: Literary Journalism
One Sentence Summary: After Bill Bryson’s father dies, the author decides to take a roadtrip through 38 states to recreate the feeling of roadtrips from his childhood.
One Sentence Review: Bryson’s characteristic sardonic humor was too dark, mean, and inconsistent for this book to work for me.
Long Review: Travelogue writer Bill Bryson grew up in Des Moines, Iowa, but lived for more than a decade in England. After his father’s death, Bryson returned to Des Moines and decided to roadtrip around the country in search of the perfect small town to recapture the feeling of his lost youth and time traveling with his family.
The trip takes two forks — one to the east and one to the west — and carries Bryson through 38 states, exploring the deepest parts of America that few people seem to notice.
I’m a small town sort of girl, so I was really looking forward to Bryson bringing his sense of humor to this exploration. But I ended up really disliking this book, and I’m still trying to figure out why.
I tried to give the book a chance. I thought for awhile my response was visceral, that I was reacting not as a reader of the book and instead was feeling like the subject under attack. After all, I grew up in the suburbs and went to college in almost stereotypical Small Town, USA, so there is a lot of me in this book.
I tried to step back emotionally, to try to be less insulted and more of an analytic reader, but even then the book just didn’t work for me.
A major issue I had throughout was inconsistency. Bryson would come across a diner or a tourist trap in one place and simply hate it. He’d rip it apart in a way that was funny but at the same time, just a little mean. Then just a few pages later he’d hit something else that sounded exactly the same, but instead he’d love it. Every time I felt like I “got” what his sensibility was, he’d do the exact opposite. I never got my footing with his impressions, and without consistency the book just doesn’t hold together.
Bryson’s sense of humor also bothered me in this book. I knew he had a bit of a bite, and wasn’t afraid to call things like he saw them. I liked it when I started Bryson’s earlier memoir, The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid. But at times in The Lost Continent, it went to far, it made me cringe, and it made me feel bad for the people he was meeting and talking to. It was like he lost the ability to be open-minded and hit every new experience expecting to hate it. That negativity bothers me.
I read another review from 2007 that said the reason the book is this way is because Bryson is furious about the things that have changed in America and that “he harps on this image merely to show how far the myth is from the reality either of America past or America present.” While that may be true, I didn’t feel like the affection Bryson has for the America of his youth ever came through enough to combat his distaste for what it is now.
I don’t really have much else to say. Other reviews I’ve read run really hot or really cold with this book. I thought I’d be on the love end, but overall didn’t enjoy reading it or feel like I’d recommend it to other people as better than another of Bryson’s books or even representative of him as an author.
But it’s not enough to turn me off Bryson — I just started listening to In A Sunburned Country, his travel book about Australia, which I’m enjoying a lot more and hope I’ll end up being able to recommend.
If you have reviewed this book, please leave a link to the review in the comments and I will add your review to the main post. All I ask is for you to do the same to mine — thanks!