Australians have a complicated relationship with the USA. On the one hand, most popular culture in Australia looks and feels “American”, but the Australian response to social, political and cultural issues is consistently much closer to how the British respond. My current PhD research at Macquarie University examines this at some length, particularly how and why the film The Passion of the Christ was received differently in Australia than in the USA. That year – 2004 – the theatrical cinema box office results in Australia were remarkably similar to the USA: in other words, films popular in the USA were also popular in Australia, but with some major exceptions. (More on that in another posting.)
The latest book to examine the Australian view of the USA is Don Watson’s American Journeys. There is a great book to be written about the USA from an Australian perspective, but this is not that book. Don Watson is the former chief speechwriter for former Australian Prime Miniser Paul Keating, and an accomplished writer. This book has been highly acclaimed, with Paul Syvret in the Courier Mail stating that it “reads like a sober version of parts of Hunter S. Thompson’s classic Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas … minus the pills and booze”.
And that’s the problem with American Journeys: no pills, no booze, but also not enough American idiom. He is given to statements (such as those on page one) like “The tenor also sang God Bless America, a song composed by a young Jewish immigrant names Irving Berlin who knew how to make hard men bawl their eyes out” or “Kansas City is, for all practical purposes, segregated.” Fine as far as they go, but so much more is needed.
To be most effective, a book like this must take one of four approaches: it either must tell a great personal story (think Jonathan Raban’s Old Glory : A Voyage Down the Mississippi, or it has to create such interesting characters that we want to keep reading, or it must be hilariously funny (think Bill Bryson’s American opus The Lost Continent: Travels in Small-Town America **or his Australian travels in In a Sunburned Country or David Dale’s 1988 book An Australian in America: First Impressions and Second Thoughts on the World’s Strangest Nation)(*) or it has to be so complete and fact-filled and insightful that the reader wants to keep reading because the insights are deep, profound and vision-altering. Watson’s book fits uncomfortably in between all of these categories. Which is not to say that the book is bad, only to say that I have tried four times to read it and could not get past page 5 each time. A shame, really.
* Here is the opening of David Dale’s book on the USA:
The longer you’ve been in a country, the harder it becomes to make generalisations about it. I have been in American only 11 days now, most of them in New York, so I can cheerfully assert the following propositions:
1. The Chrysler Building is the most beautiful feat of architecture in the 20th century.
2. All Americans are selling something.
3. All Americans are so polite it’s scary.
4. You can get anything you want in New York (and a lot of things you don’t want), except an early morning wake-up call and a public toilet when you most need it.
I suppose you expect me to produce evidence ….
I, for one, wanted to keep reading this book.
** Here is the opening of Bill Bryson’s book:
I come from Des Moines. Somebody had to.
When you come from Des Moines you either accept the fact without question and settle down with a local girl named Bobbi and get a job at the Firestone factory and live there for ever and ever, or you spend your adolescence moaning at length about what a dump it is and how you can’t wait to get out, and then you settle down with a local girl named Bobbi and get a job at the Firestone factory and live there for ever and ever.
Back in graduate school at the University of California at Berkeley, I took a creative writing course with the African-American novelist and poet Ishmael Reed. One thing he taught us – a technique which I continue to use almost weekly, thirty-plus years later – is to read the first page of a book if you are considering purchasing/reading it. If it engages you, if you like it, if you want to keep reading, go for it. If it bores you or does not engage you, forget it. Read David Dale and Bill Bryson above. If you like their style/s, you will like their books. To turn the old aphorism on its head, you may not be able to tell a book from its cover, but you almost certainly can from its first page.