Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Book Review - The Road To Little Dribbling

I really like Bill Bryson’s writing. I own both books he wrote on English usage and have read several other of his works, including A Walk in the Woods, At Home (my book of the year in 2011), and One Summer.  The Bill Bryson I know is avuncular if bit irascible, the paradigm of a public radio host with a bit of a salty tongue about him. So, when Bryson puts out a new book, even on a topic that might not interest me, say, traveling in Great Britain, I am definitely going to read it. Which is why writing this review of The Road to Little Dribbling is so difficult. I really did not like this book. It was by turns churlish and meandering, with a sense of “mailing it in” that surprised and disappointed me. It was as if Bryson’s editor told him it was time to crank out another book and the best they could come up with was revisiting a topic (and place) already explored. 

But Bryson is no stranger in a strange land. He has lived in England off-and-on for decades and wrote a similar book (Notes From A Small Island) that The Road is a sort-of sequel to. Indeed, one of the first chapters documents his taking the British citizenship test (he passes). Oddly, for someone so versed in English culture, Bryson all too often comes off as the quintessential ugly American (which is ironic, considering he was born in Iowa). He reserves his sharpest barbs and insults for people who work in the service industry - waiters, shopkeepers and the like - who Bryson dismisses and demeans while fantasizing about inflicting bodily injury to them for the temerity of not giving him what he wants. It is not a good look and Bryson falls on the wrong side of the line between curmudgeon and straight up asshole more often than not. 

The Road has the feel of a musical album of outtakes and lost tracks, something that record companies put out long after the Tupacs or Elvises of the world have left us. I hate to call this book a cash grab because it does have salutary aspects, but it lacks originality and was not thought through. For instance, Bryson visits many places that do not appear on the lone map provided at the beginning of the book, including Wales, and no line of demarcation is provided for the border between England and another part of Great Britain that he also visits - Scotland, so through much of the book you have no idea where he is unless you also have Google maps open on whatever device is handy. 

Further, the so-called “Bryson Line” - a sort of Broadway separating the eastern and western halves of Great Britain is not followed with any particular fidelity. For more than the first half of the book Bryson rattles around the southern coast and then knocks off the upper two-thirds in a scant 100 pages or so. It is odd for a book to feel both padded and too short, but The Road achieves this rare daily double. There is a lather, rinse, repeat quality to the reporting - Bryson enters <fill in blank town> finds nearest pub, has a drink with either a charmingly British bartender or a dismissive one, eats an Indian meal next door, and goes to bed. There are many greens and glens, craggy cliffs, and quirky one-offs, but the whole is far less than the some of the parts. The book suffers from far too little editing to whittle down the essentials while failing to give the type of visual or spatial guidance that would have been helpful. 

Bryson would have been better served traveling to a country he was unfamiliar with or perhaps it is just that he is a poor ambassador for the country he is familiar with - much of The Road includes discursive references to traffic, the poor design of the highway (sorry, motorway) system, the disagreeability of the native people, and so forth. When he is not being an obnoxious jerk or fantasizing about beating some poor soul over the head with his cane, Bryson can be an enjoyable tour guide. The best parts of The Road are those where Bryson acts as historian and storyteller at the sites he visits. A page summary on Roger Bannister’s four-minute mile and Stonehenge’s less famous sister site Avebury are Bryson at his best. 

In the final chapter, Bryson discusses what he likes about England, noting that “living in a British climate teaches patience and stoicism.” The same could be said for slogging through The Road To Little Dribbling.

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