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Sarah Ruden

Everyman at Large

Bill Bryson in Britain.

In every generation there are a few authors who both make you feel they're speaking to you personally, and avoid the impositions common in that. They can even be curmudgeonly, or esoteric, or too broad in their choices of topics, without being tiresome.

Like most arts, it's harder than it looks. In the modern Western world, with its deference to spontaneous self-expression and individual opinion per se, a long experience in journalism, especially on some technical side, can take the place of traditional rhetorical training in getting an author used to the work and restraint behind literary charm.

Mark Twain, Graham Greene, and Bill Bryson all worked in production departments of newspapers (that is, at the level of spelling, spacing, and the avoidance of howlers in headlines). In response to drives more powerful than the drive to write tends to be in itself—all three, as young men, found themselves in quite insecure circumstances, yet made love matches and became the sole support of families—they were compelled to become reliable craftsmen, toiling against the hazards of publishing, ratcheting in the links between themselves and readers.

In reviewing Bill Bryson's latest travel book, The Road to Little Dribbling, an obvious recourse is to discuss his view of Britain, where he's repeatedly expatriated himself. Since the book's publication, Brexit-related controversies have even sharpened interest in his judgments. What is the British character anyway? Is Britain now decadent? Bigoted? Well-governed? More dynamic than Europe? More humane and stable and realistic than the US? What kind of a future does it have?

But a really accomplished popular writer transcends such mundane questions. Bryson is a gift from God, whatever his own attitude toward God might be—and his seems to be pretty much nonexistent. A Short History of Nearly Everything (2003) would have been the place to reflect on ultimate being, but I don't remember a word in that direction. What I do remember is the story of three young American Yellowstone employees who sneaked out of their quarters at night to sport in the various bodies of water. They ended up linking arms to run and jump playfully across what they thought was a small stream, but what was really a boiling pool, fascinating (though plainly not to them, before this fatal moment) evidence of geological instability. Bryson is quintessentially the author of that kind of image, not of any big picture.

Bryson is, moreover, well constituted for mere throw-away provocations on politics, economics, culture, and morality. Like the Classical Athenian comic actor with his strap-on paunch and snub-nosed, grimacing mask, he revels in his homeliness, love of ordinary good living, and sometimes cynical, sometimes feckless horror at the state of things. (Robert Redford as Bryson in the film [2015] of A Walk in the Woods [1998] could well be the worst casting choice in history.) This new book opens with his concussing encounter with an automatic parking barrier seconds after he has seen it in motion. ("A kindly lady helped me to a bench and gave me a square of chocolate, which I found I was still clutching the next morning.")

Bryson's views on immigration, for example, congeal truculently in his admiration for a friend on the faculty of Durham University, a top-flight foreign-born scientist. Pertinent, though not explicitly, is his disgust for the native or thoroughly assimilated yobs he sits near on public transport, and for their discarded reading material; in one document, a celeb glories in having stuck her boyfriend with the cost of plastic surgery for a part of her body that's not, you would think, ever under the spotlight—but never say never, nowadays.

On British taxes and public spending, it is mainly the veteran hiker and professional vacationer speaking: post-industrial ugliness and decay are like a personal insult; conservation and preservation are self-evidently worth the money. On the economy in general, it is his travel and research (lightly planned, even in his own depiction) that get the final say. Even when the evidence happens to be telling, the conclusions are hardly applied with precision.

Bryson visits, for example, the town of Ironbridge, the site of a Quaker-run smelting facility where experiments, from the start of the 18th century, helped to get the Industrial Revolution rolling. In a museum there, Bryson comes across Arthur Raistrick's Quakers in Science and Industry (1993) and sits over the book, absorbed, and amazed that the exclusion of Quakers from the academy and politics turned their energies to such great effect. "It had never occurred to me to be unkind to a Quaker, but if that's what it takes to get the country back on its feet again, I am prepared to consider it."

That episode (delightful to me as a Quaker, of course) points to the value of this kind of personal yet exuberantly communicative book, its higher and deeper power in a time of crisis. George Orwell emphasized the ethos (earthily skeptical, privately communal, modestly hedonistic) of the Everyman as a force against tyranny in Britain; but the phenomenon holds in many other countries, and their popular literature is where you can see it most clearly. Faced with a humorously stubborn mere-humanness—incompatible both with aspirations to power and with cowardice—evil is up against a lot.

In one of The Road's most memorable scenes, Bryson stops at a McDonald's with two cars full of family. His initial polling proving inaccurate, he has to revise the order several times. Then far too many heaped trays are brought out: every correction has registered as a separate order. The manager checks the cash register readout as definitive evidence of the order's accuracy. Bryson's wife—always an adorable character in his books, placidly but implacably touching things in shops, presiding over the joint of meat the children quickly annihilate down to the greasy cotton cord—takes the sputtering, declaiming author gently aside the way she would manage an agitated mental patient in the institution where Bryson was working when he met her; then she goes to deal with the server and the food.

The message sticks better than any pundit could make it stick. We're being "fed" by transcontinental machines, not by human arbitration any more. A young man taking a fast-food order isn't supposed to have any more agency or flexibility than voice-response automation, a small part of a system meticulously designed to extract the maximum from consumers in return for the minimum through a set of stereotyped interactions; and to become more and more efficient in this extraction, which means less and less responsive and accountable. The zombie reawakening of classical capitalism, in which a fast-food worker doesn't take in a "Sorry, make that … " but only the epithets of products on offer and the numbers of products sought, doesn't show any real meaning in an expert's analysis, which is just a recalculation of calculation. (Besides, the expert is to some extent an insider designed himself not to report a system's hopeless failure.) The meaning shows in a story like this one, in which the role of the machinery in human life is subtly, meticulously, but vividly dramatized. As with Bryson and the parking barrier, we hardly know in the moment what hits us. We need the story, on this theme and many others.

Love is something like narrative—or good narrative. In the words of the Quaker James Naylor, the spirit of love delights to endure all things, in hope to enjoy its own in the end. Bill Bryson is seen hunching through traffic-jammed beauty spots, depressing, nearly abandoned coastal resorts, and cultural and historical pivots with love, as well as impatience and sarcasm, in his heart. These three are not separable, since love isn't separable from truth and practicalities. He adores his wife; but he is not going to add, from pretentious shops, to her supply of pillows and throws. He hovers over the overpriced toiletries she likes, and he can't bring himself to buy a single one of the tiny bottles. He's like us, except that he's an ingenious writer.

Sarah Ruden is a visiting scholar in Classics at Brown University. Her translation of the Oresteia (funded by the Guggenheim Foundation) recently appeared in The Greek Plays (The Modern Library). The Face of the Water: A Translator on Beauty and Meaning in the Bible is forthcoming from Knopf.

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