Bryson Back in the USA

Bryson Back in the USA

The man who transformed wandering inexplicably into the underbrush into an entertaining read is back. Bill Bryson, author of the bestseller "A Walk in the Woods," has collected his newspaper columns about the United States, pieces that were originally published in England.

Because Bryson's writing career straddles both nations — he spent 20 years overseas before resettling in New Hampshire — his perspectives on returning home have a Rip Van Winkle-like quality to them. Much has changed in two decades.

Consider drugs, for example,: "It is an odd thing about us. We expend hugh efforts exhorting ourselves to 'Say No to Drugs,' then go to the drugstore and buy them by the armloads." Or shopping. After a visit to outlet heaven (or hell, depending on your point of view) in Freeport, Maine, home of L.L. Bean, Bryson writes, "You can buy a kayak there at 3 a.m. if you want. People apparently do. My brain is beginning to hurt again."

His 70 short essays vary in subject matter and are not all hilarious, as the flap jacket would have one believe. Some are intentionally serious, provocative even, providing a nice balance. Bryson discusses the IRS, bemoans America's penchant for waste, laments the loss of a son (to adolescence and college) and expounds on the enormity of the American landscape (where a small plane can crash into the woods so dense that it can remain hidden for years, even decades).

Bryson notes that we as a nation, with but 5 percent of the world's people, consume 20 percent of the earth's resources: with our massive sport-utility vehicles, lighting vacant homes and offices, leaving computers on all night, and cranking the thermostat beyond 70, etc.

This is not to say that Bryson can't be very funny. His analysis of the dangers of bedding, coins and clothing makes it clear that we live in perilous times: "The people I would really like to meet are the 142,000 hapless souls [annually] who received emergency room treatment for injuries afflicted by their clothing. What can they be suffering from? Compound pajama fracture? Sweatpants hematoma? I am powerless to speculate."

Filing his American income tax return after 20 years inspired this instructional parody: "Under Section890f, list total farm income (if none, give details). If you were born after January 1, 1897, and are NOT a widow(er), include excess casualty losses and provide carryover figures for depreciation on line 27iii. You must list the number of turnkeys slaughtered for export."

In a commentary on license plates, he skewers his own state's pugnacious bumper motto: "Live Free or Die." He prefers "something a little more equivocal and less terminal,: such as "Live Free or Pout." As usual, Bill is right.