If you ask me, the vikings make far more worthy heroes for America [than Columbus]. For one thing, they did actually discover it. On top of that, the Vikings were manly and drank out of skulls and didn’t take any crap from anybody. Now that’s the American way.
So says Bill Bryson at one point during his months-long trek across 38 states in an old Chevette, enduring endless miles of cornfields and desert in order to find the perfect American small town, somewhere that hearkens back to his childhood in Des Moines, Iowa; somewhere so Leave It to Beaver it’s almost kitschy.
As you may be well aware, I’m a fan of Bryson, having read many of his books (one even for this meme), and I must admit that this so far is my least favorite. This is a relative statement, of course: I’ve never read anything unenjoyable by Bryson: it’s just that he seems to transmit all-too-well his boredom during much of this trip. The witty anecdotes that usually dominate his writing only pepper this book; his prose is coarser, but with good reason: this book is his first attempt at writing a travel book (1989). He had not yet developed the sort of style that allows him to write over 500 pages about science and have it be riveting the entire way. Still, I found the book very entertaining, though it probably helps that I was born and raised in various states of the Midwest: in fact, of the 38 states Bryson traveled through, I’ve lived in four of them, and traveled in at least six others. When he describes corn as far as the eye can see, I know what he means, and I know that in I week I will be driving across the width of Iowa. It is all too familiar.
So, this book is not for a first-time reader of Bryson, for which I would recommend Made in America (or The Mother Tongue if you’re British) or A Short History of Nearly Everything, which I believe to be his finest work so far. If you’ve tackled those, and you like Bryson, I would still recommend this not only as a fine book, but an interesting look at the author’s beginnings (in more ways than one).