In a Sunburned Country

Bill Bryson

Read September, 2006

Remember that scene in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade? Indy says of Marcus Brody, “Brody's got friends in every town and village from here to the Sudan, he speaks a dozen languages, knows every local custom, he'll blend in, disappear, you'll never see him again. With any luck, he's got the Grail already.” Cut to Brody standing lost in the middle of a market crying out, “Uhhh, does anyone here speak English?” Bill Bryson wants us to believe he's Marcus Brody. There is a small danger he might be.

Bryson's formula is alive and well in this book on Australia. To wit: crib facts from other books (in this instance, one immediately recognizes the influence of The Fatal Shore and The Road to Coorain), make fun of foreign place-names and sports, appear stupid, and sporadically serve up a dose of bad manners. A whole genre has risen up around these themes. Because this book is about Australia, he can add a healthy (ahem) dose of another vital component of the genre: quivering with fear at nature.

What is most tragicomic about Bryson's travel is its deeply contradictory nature. For a travel writer, he is most immediately comfortable in places that best resemble the Iowa of his youth. We're left to wonder if this isn't because of the somewhat broken home-life of his youth he describes; but for an author to inject himself thus into a continent is ludicrous. And boring.

What Bryson does have, that many of his genre lack, is a genuine interest in the natural and social sciences. Not much, and often only when they add dramatic effect (or humor—those complicated taxonomies are such a rip, you know!), but it's present nonetheless, and his books are the better for it. So when he's not finding comical and ludicrous over-the-top monuments or locations that, ultimately, tell us very little about the country—his style is a sequence of trivia-cuttings, a factual mirror of pulp-fiction...a kind of pulp-fact—he can pause to enlighten. Just once, his inner Midwesterner goes into hiding and he rises above the inane, juvenile content as he lays out the wonder and tragedy of the Aboriginals, and you sense he would do more of it, except he's savvy enough to know that's not what his audience is paying for.