I realize you’re supposed to finish a book before you write a book report on it, but 1) I’m really enjoying this one, and 2) I’m bored and want to virtual-talk to somebody, and c) who knows, I could die tomorrow, and everyone would be at the wake lamenting, “If only there’d been more time. Now we’ll never get the chance to ask Chuck if he enjoyed In a Sunburned Country by Bill Bryson.” (In case I drop dead while blogging: the answer is yes, I’m enjoying it a lot).
When I was reading A Short History of Nearly Everything, I said that I was really impressed with Bryson’s writing but was frustrated with how he handled the material. While a historian and magazine columnist writing about science didn’t work well for me, a humorist writing travel memoirs works great.
For starters, it’s about Australia. Who doesn’t love Australia? Satanists, that’s who. And possibly New Zealanders, which is just about the same thing. The impression you get from In a Sunburned Country is that the country has the most bizarre and inhospitable environment on the planet, with the friendliest people in the world trying to counter-balance that.
The book is also funny as hell. I was sold as soon as I read the passage where Bryson describes himself falling asleep in someone’s car:
Most people when they nod off look as if they could do with a blanket; I look as if I could do with medical attention. I sleep as if injected with a powerful experimental muscle relaxant. My legs fall open in a grotesque come-hither manner; my knuckles brush the floor. Whatever is inside — tongue, uvula, moist bubbles of intestinal air — decides to leak out. From time to time, like one of those nodding-duck toys, my head tips forward to empty a quart or so of viscous drool onto my lap, then falls back to begin loading again with a noise like a toilet cistern filling.
Reading that was the first time I’ve laughed out loud at a book since I first found Roy Blount Jr.’s stuff. And he’s consistent; the book is filled with genuinely funny passages; even when he goes for the corny or predictable joke, it’s hilarious.
The best surprise of the book for me is that it’s reminded me to drop the preconceived ideas I have about people. Not Australians, in particular — the country as described in the book matches pretty well with how I’ve always imagined it — but people in general. I was pretty dismissive of Bill Bryson’s books, figuring anything that popular can’t possibly be good. I assumed they were light, and easy to read (both of which are true, it turns out), and full of Country Home Companion-style heartwarming, wry humor. I imagined the target audience, like Bryson himself, were suburban mid-westerners in their 50s who had excess income and leisure time they wanted to fill with something mildly adventurous. In short, the CBS crowd.
That was dispelled the first couple of times he said “fuck” and described himself drawing a cartoon about salmon masturbating. It sounds as if all you have to do is cuss and make giggling jokes about sex to keep me entertained, and while that’s true, that’s not my point. In fact, my point is the opposite. We’ve gotten so used to the idea that comedy has to be “edgy” to be funny, that it’s become just as tired a stereotype as the opposite. I suspect that people are a lot less sheltered and tightly-wound than we imagine them to be, and when your whole schtick is built around shocking people, more often than not you’re just being boorish.
The real talent isn’t in taking it upon yourself to shock people out of their complacent Father Knows Best existence, it’s having the subtlety and nuance to recognize exactly when saying “fuck” makes the joke. I’m glad I was wrong to be so dismissive about Bryson; he’s a lot more talented than I’d assumed.