Ours is “a country that is at once staggeringly empty and yet packed with stuff. Interesting stuff, ancient stuff, stuff not readily explained. Stuff yet to be found.” So said Bill Bryson in Down Under, which he wrote more than ten years ago, and which I've just finished. The book itself is packed with stuff, and yet curiously empty. Bryson's certainly not an extreme tourist. He follows a fairly monotonous pattern - drive to place, find motel, have a gander at local museum, have too many beers at motel, reflect warmly, drive on - but he manages to squeeze in a tremendous amount of history, science, sociology, arcana and trivia, and also be uproariously funny. His descriptions of cricket, parliament, and other Australian curiosities, are outstanding, and I enjoyed just as much his self-deprecating descriptions of his attempt at bodysurfing, and of his embarrassing sleeping habits. In fact the latter's too good not to quote:
I am not, I regret to say, a discreet and fetching sleeper...I sleep as if injected with a powerful experimental muscle relaxant. My legs fall apart in a grotesque come-hither manner; my knuckles brush the floor. Whatever is inside - tongue, uvula, moist bubbles of intestinal air - decides to leak out. From time to time...my head tips forward to empty a quart or so of viscous drool onto my lap, then falls back to begin loading again with a noise like a toilet cistern filling. And I snore, hugely and helplessly, like a cartoon character, with rubbery flapping lips and prolonged steam-valve exhalations. For long periods I grow unnaturally still...Then I shriek once or twice in a piercing and effeminate manner and wake up to find that all motion within 500 feet has stopped.
His descriptive powers are admirable, and as an Australian I couldn't help but enjoy his bemusement, wonderment and affection for the place. I found myself wanting more thoughtful analysis and searing commentary, a more purposeful sojourn; but that's not really what he sets out to do. He's taken funny field notes in the places he happens to wind up, and then generously shared them. The book is a product of just that meandering good nature which is content to stumble on a beer and a bit of local colour. Not having read his other books (yet) I don't know if that's Bryson, or if that's simply what he found down under.