Friday, 30 May 2008

D-U-C Travel Writing Awards Spectacular...#1: Comedy

Well, not that spectacular. I've just found two sections from an unpublished post from last year. The idea had been to make a feature about my favourite pieces of travel writing sorted by category. Given that I was making it up on the spot, I'm not sure the winners are actually correct, but what can you do. Anyway, the first award in this very occasional series is for travel writing of a comic bent:

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Bill Bryson, A Walk in the Woods

I often get the feeling that many travel writing afficionados look down on Bryson somewhat. The glossy covers, the mass readership, the sheer mid-Atlantic breeziness of it all - unlike the frequently heavy-handed Paul Theroux, Bryson is predominantly interested in mining the comic potential of the American abroad - all seem to conspire to put people off. What I think is great about Bryson is the unadulterated childishness of his writing, meaning that he seems to locate some kind of Burkean sublime in everything from a Swedish Roll-on Roll-off ferry to a waste paper basket in Dover to an epiphany on the Bosphorus at dusk. Bryson spoils himself in A Walk in the Woods, choosing as his subject matter the mindbendingly lengthy Appalachian Trail, a hiking footpath which wends and winds all the way from northern Georgia to the Canadian border in Maine. The path passes over some of the highest mountains in the eastern United States, and through some of the vastest wildernesses on that side of the Rockies. There's bears, snakes, poisonous deer ticks and unhinged hillbillies to deal with along the way, as if the strenuous walking, sub-zero camping and endless stove food wasn't enough.

Bryson, clearly a capable traveller, would probably have breezed it if he'd gone alone. However, shortly before setting out on his expedition, panic set in, and he decided to footnote all of his Christmas cards with an invitation to accompany him on the walk. Clearly, the gods were looking kindly on his publishers, as the only respondent was an old, seriously overweight college friend with alcohol and drug "issues". "Hilarious consequences" ensue.

However, the jokes (many of which, unsurprisingly, come at the increasingly "tested" accomplice's expense) are matched by a sensitive affinity for the environment in which he finds himself, in both a natural and a human sense. There's a measure of quiet outrage towards the American government over the "secret" poverty of the rural South, which is backed up by a warmth towards its inhabitants (a favourite scene depicts an exhausted Bryson and friend hitching a lift off a just-wed pair of drunkards). On top of this, the book is full of unexpected nuggets of American history which are imbued with the kind of ironic touch The Guardian would have us believe is not commonplace over the pond.

1 comment:

Crystal said...

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