“I'm a Stranger Here Myself”

A collection of columns by a lazy writer makes for lazy readers, too.

Topics: Books,

There are two sorts of columnists worth reading. One is the expert — someone like Robert Christgau of the Village Voice, a guy who’s breathed music for 30 years and knows more about the subject than Billboard does. The other kind is simply fascinating — someone like Lewis Lapham of Harper’s Magazine, who can make a connection between Louis XIV’s court and Reagan’s cabinet one month and write on cultural commodification the next.

Bill Bryson, the author of the set of columns collected in “I’m a Stranger Here Myself,” is neither fascinating nor an expert. He’s an American who wrote travel books and newspapered in England for 20 years before returning to New Hampshire with his wife and family in 1996. He’s also the author of the 1998 bestseller “A Walk in the Woods,” a travel diary that details his aborted attempts to hike the entire length of the Appalachian Trail.

The best parts of “A Walk in the Woods” worked because not much happened along the trail; in order to fill in the holes, Bryson became something of an expert, studying and researching people, flora, fauna, history and park politics. There’s none of that rigor in “I’m a Stranger Here Myself,” a coattail collection of columns, originally written for the British magazine Night & Day, that examine the minutiae of American life in neat four-page chunks. In one piece the subject is a small-town post office on customer-appreciation day; in another it’s the tedium of highway driving. Nostalgia accounts for several essays about motels, drive-in theaters, small-town living and the beauty of Thanksgiving.

An editor of mine once told me that any writer you give a column to sooner or later ends up writing about television; he believed that writers are lazy people who would rather turn on the idiot box than get out of their bathrobes and report. Bryson starts writing about television in his third column. (He misses coming home drunk in England and watching lectures on “Open University.”) That column sets up a trap that he falls into for the rest of his book: Almost all of his subjects come to him. An article in the Atlantic Monthly becomes a column about the ludicrous drug war; a box of dental floss works itself into a confused meditation on consumer warnings and born worriers; a catalog prompts a thousand words on shopping. His laziness is contagious: If you read several columns in one sitting, you get to the point where you start skipping over weak leads (“The other day something in our local newspaper caught my eye”; “I decided to clean out the refrigerator the other day”).



Bryson tries to make up for his reportorial torpor with jokes, as if he thinks we’re more likely to enjoy a few strung-together paragraphs about barbershops if there’s a zinger about Wayne Newton’s hair at the end. He also relies on several crutches to get him through his weekly deadlines. Having returned to the States, he trades in the English smirk at absurdity for cudgeling exaggerations — “help the National Rifle Association with its Arm-a-Toddler campaign” — and he wraps almost every piece with a tacked-on paragraph that riffs on an earlier joke.

To be fair, he’s occasionally funny. (In a story about snowmobiling: “The next thing I knew I was on the edge of the New Hampshire woods, wearing a snug, heavy helmet that robbed me of all my senses except terror.”) And in a few columns — one on sending his son off to school, another about why autumn leaves change colors — he actually invests either himself or his resources enough to give the work emotional or intellectual ballast.

Those moments are dismally few. When Bryson’s editor at Night & Day persuaded him to write a column on American life for a British audience, he probably imagined something like Alexis de Tocqueville channeled through Dave Barry. What he got instead was the observational humor of a second-rate Seinfeld leafing through the mail in his bathrobe.

Jeff Stark is the associate editor of Salon Arts and Entertainment.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 14
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Adam, "Pilot"

    One of our first exposures to uncomfortable “Girls” sex comes early, in the pilot episode, when Hannah and Adam “get feisty” (a phrase Hannah hates) on the couch. The pair is about to go at it doggy-style when Adam nearly inserts his penis in “the wrong hole,” and after Hannah corrects him, she awkwardly explains her lack of desire to have anal sex in too many words. “Hey, let’s play the quiet game,” Adam says, thrusting. And so the romance begins.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Marnie and Elijah, "It's About Time"

    In an act of “betrayal” that messes up each of their relationships with Hannah, Marnie and Elijah open Season 2 with some more couch sex, which is almost unbearable to watch. Elijah, who is trying to explore the “hetero side” of his bisexuality, can’t maintain his erection, and the entire affair ends in very uncomfortable silence.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Marnie and Charlie, "Vagina Panic"

    Poor Charlie. While he and Marnie have their fair share of uncomfortable sex over the course of their relationship, one of the saddest moments (aside from Marnie breaking up with him during intercourse) is when Marnie encourages him to penetrate her from behind so she doesn’t have to look at him. “This feels so good,” Charlie says. “We have to go slow.” Poor sucker.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Shoshanna and camp friend Matt, "Hannah's Diary"

    We’d be remiss not to mention Shoshanna’s effort to lose her virginity to an old camp friend, who tells her how “weird” it is that he “loves to eat pussy” moments before she admits she’s never “done it” before. At least it paves the way for the uncomfortable sex we later get to watch her have with Ray?

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Adam, "Hard Being Easy"

    On the heels of trying (unsuccessfully) to determine the status of her early relationship with Adam, Hannah walks by her future boyfriend’s bedroom to find him masturbating alone, in one of the strangest scenes of the first season. As Adam jerks off and refuses to let Hannah participate beyond telling him how much she likes watching, we see some serious (and odd) character development ... which ends with Hannah taking a hundred-dollar bill from Adam’s wallet, for cab fare and pizza (as well as her services).

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Marnie and Booth Jonathan, "Bad Friend"

    Oh, Booth Jonathan -- the little man who “knows how to do things.” After he turns Marnie on enough to make her masturbate in the bathroom at the gallery where she works, Booth finally seals the deal in a mortifying and nearly painful to watch sex scene that tells us pretty much everything we need to know about how much Marnie is willing to fake it.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Tad and Loreen, "The Return"

    The only sex scene in the series not to feature one of the main characters, Hannah’s parents’ showertime anniversary celebration is easily one of the most cringe-worthy moments of the show’s first season. Even Hannah’s mother, Loreen, observes how embarrassing the situation is, which ends with her husband, Tad, slipping out of the shower and falling naked and unconscious on the bathroom floor.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and the pharmacist, "The Return"

    Tad and Loreen aren’t the only ones to get some during Hannah’s first season trip home to Michigan. The show’s protagonist finds herself in bed with a former high school classmate, who doesn’t exactly enjoy it when Hannah puts one of her fingers near his anus. “I’m tight like a baby, right?” Hannah asks at one point. Time to press pause.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Adam, "Role-Play"

    While it’s not quite a full-on, all-out sex scene, Hannah and Adam’s attempt at role play in Season 3 is certainly an intimate encounter to behold (or not). Hannah dons a blond wig and gets a little too into her role, giving a melodramatic performance that ends with a passerby punching Adam in the face. So there’s that.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Shoshanna and Ray, "Together"

    As Shoshanna and Ray near the end of their relationship, we can see their sexual chemistry getting worse and worse. It’s no more evident than when Ray is penetrating a clothed and visibly horrified Shoshanna from behind, who ends the encounter by asking if her partner will just “get out of me.”

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Frank, "Video Games"

    Hannah, Jessa’s 19-year-old stepbrother, a graveyard and too much chatting. Need we say more about how uncomfortable this sex is to watch?

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Marnie and Desi, "Iowa"

    Who gets her butt motorboated? Is this a real thing? Aside from the questionable logistics and reality of Marnie and Desi’s analingus scene, there’s also the awkward moment when Marnie confuses her partner’s declaration of love for licking her butthole with love for her. Oh, Marnie.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Adam, "Vagina Panic"

    There is too much in this scene to dissect: fantasies of an 11-year-old girl with a Cabbage Patch lunchbox, excessive references to that little girl as a “slut” and Adam ripping off a condom to ejaculate on Hannah’s chest. No wonder it ends with Hannah saying she almost came.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>