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Wanderin’ books

I would like to present a compare and contrast essay on Bill Bryson’s “The Lost Continent” and Kerouac’s “On the Road”. I finished them both in short succession and they beg, beg I tell you, to be analysed via a compare and contrast essay. Both deal with road trips around the US, but in totally different ways.

Short summary:

Bill Bryson’s “The Lost Continent” (1989) recounts Bryson’s road trip around small towns in America. In his mum’s car, prompted by childhood reminiscences, he trundles from town to town, looking for the embodiment of the values he associates with small town America. He describes his fantasy small town and calls it Amalgam, USA.  He never finds it, of course, although he comes close a few times.

Kerouac’s “On the Road” (1951) is a stream-of-consciousness book (everyone used to pretend it was novel, but I don’t think anyone bothers anymore) describing the author’s road trips around the US, with friends and lovers. For publication, Kerouac changed the name of his friends to pseudonyms, but you can find a character key online easily. The version I have is a Penguin Modern Classics release and is a transcription of the original scroll, so all the folks’ real names are used.

Similarities (Compare)

Well, there’s the obvious one: they’re both about road trips. But that’s a bit like saying “King Lear” is about some dude. Technically not false, but not really grasping the full picture. So both books are about driving around America, looking closely at specific elements of American culture and searching for something.  In “The Lost Continent”, Bryson is looking for the America promised to him in his boyhood. He’s looking for the the beauty, harmony and community-minded tenderness that he felt must be there in small towns in America, if only he could find it.  Instead he finds malls and mass chains, tourist traps and highways. “On the Road” tells the story of Kerouac’s journeys, mostly by car — driving, hitchhiking, carpooling — with friends, major figures of the beat generation, in the 1940’s. They drink, they take drugs, they fuck, they write, they play music and go to jazz clubs, they take short-term crap jobs to scare up cash for the next round of travelling.  Wait, this is meant to be the similarities bit.  Okay: the big similarity is that both Bryson and Kerouac are looking for something. Bryson is looking for Amalgam, Kerouac is looking for life beyond the default.

Differences (Contrasts)

Where do I start? These books are so different in voice, style and attitude.

I liked Bryson’s book, but there’s a grumbling cynicism to it that made me gave me indigestion. There’s an underlying sadness to his perpetual astonishment that small towns he visited as a boy aren’t the same anymore, while ones he’d never visited before varied from depressing to interesting. The trip seemed to go from disappointment to disappointment. When I finished it, I didn’t want to visit any of the places he’d mentioned (now, when I read Bryson’s “A Walk in the Woods”, his account of trying to walk part of the Appalachian Trail, it left me hankering for boots and bears and looking up the prices of flights to the US).  Kerouac was the perfect antidote to Bryson’s grumbliness: “On the Road” electrified me. Kerouac’s stream-of-consciousness writing is so vivid it sucked me in like a whirlpool. The push of his voice is exciting and made me want to get over to the US and follow his trail: there’s an excitement and enthusiasm for everything. Even when it isn’t Kerouac’s excitement, but the excitement of his companions — even when you can see the excitement is short-sighted or unjustified because you know they won’t follow through on their plans or promises — it gets to you and whips you up.

Another similarity

I mentioned that there’s an underlying sadness in Bryson’s book; similarly, there’s a strain of sadness in Kerouac’s, too. It starts small and builds towards the end: you can sense the conclusion coming that their road tripping times are getting harder for them, because they never find the meaning or the life they think they’re going to find at the other end.

Conclusion

What’s to conclude? I was never very good at compare-and-contrast essays. I don’t think “The Lost Continent” is Bryson’s best work; I think “On the Road” is one of the most inspiring and exciting books ever.  It has also put me on a bit of an Americana jag: I’ve just started “The Catcher in the Rye”.

Postscript

I originally typed “whirlpool” as “whirlpoop”, a phrase I shall try and incorporate into my day-to-day speech.

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