Want to learn about Australia, mate? Bill Bryson reports the facts but
doesn't capture the soul of this `Sunburned Country'
Australian guide too much fluff, not enough substance
BYLINE: David Vance
PUBLICATION: The Austin American-Statesman
'The emptiness of so much of Australia is startling," states Bill Bryson near the
beginning of "In a Sunburned Country." A reader might make a similar observation
about Bryson's new book. Both the country and his travelogue are bursting with strange
wonders, such as 12-foot earthworms and artificial 50-foot lobsters. So why the feeling
of emptiness? Like 19th-century Australian pioneers exploring the interior of their new
land, expecting to find some life just over the horizon but finding more desert, the
deeper the reader plunges into the book, the less life there is to see. Actual people are
like shadows, although vistas of statistics pop up everywhere.
"Sunburned" abounds with facts and figures on every conceivable aspect of the Land
Down Under ("Australia is now home to more than 2,700 foreign weeds." Well, I'll be!),
yet very little of note happens narratively. Understandable when you realize Bryson,
author of "A Walk In the Woods," spent a very limited time down under during three
separate trips. He obviously spent much more time in his local reference library. So,
curiously, despite (or because of?) this detail, the book is both too broad and too
minimal, and in the end lacks an involvement with the heart of the country that would
pump lifeblood through its pages.
Bryson and the book always seem to be on the periphery of the action, delving into
some musty geological or historical tome while life kangaroo-hops on by. He discusses
with minute detail fungi and fish but rarely becomes involved with individuals, who in a
most meaningful way are the soul of a country. He examines Aboriginal life and history
generally while never having a conversation with an actual Aborigine. At the end of a
discussion on them and their sad situation, he writes, ". . . without an original or helpful
thought in my head, I just sat for some minutes and watched these poor disconnected
people shuffle past." We, and they, deserve more.
Interactions with people invigorate travel writing. Data we can get easily. A sense of the
people and their life? Well, in Bryson's book, that sense remains remote. When an
exchange does occur, though, it often ends like this encounter with an Australian tourist
in front of a 50-foot lobster: "We were getting on like a house on fire. I hadn't had a
conversation this long in days. What am I saying -- I hadn't had this much fun in days.
Unfortunately, neither of us could think of anything more to say, and so we just stood
awkwardly for a while." Nothing to say to a foreigner staring at a giant lobster? Not a
good sign for readers when the author starves for conversation and fun.
All this is not to say that the book doesn't entertain in its own way. The boundless
information, for those who like such things, is absorbing. (Did you know the Japanese
cult best known for its deadly Tokyo gas attack, Aum Shinrikyo, may have tested a
nuclear bomb in the outback?) Bryson is also a deft and funny anecdotist. His bumbling
personality brings quite a few chuckles. (He considers boogie-boarding deadly, gets
laughably sunburned, everything appears lethal and he comes across as a bit of a
ninny.) If Dave Barry wrote travel books, they'd probably be a lot like this, with less
research. Bryson even uses the Barry-patented "I am not making this up" phrase
several times. The many bits of information he has collected is all seamlessly
But again, one wonders if all that background is merely filler for his lack of travel through
the country. For instance, the first leg of his journey was a three-day rail trip from Sydney
to Perth for a magazine article he was writing. Throughout, he barely leaves the train
and afterward notes, ". . . all that was required of us to get there was to sit passively for
seventy-two hours." (Huh? )
Other scenes unfold just as anti climactically. He listens to cricket on the radio and
discusses Australian Rules Football, but he never actually attends a sporting event in
this most sporting of countries. He walks several hours to see a mansion, and once
there realizes he "didn't actually care in the tiniest degree" about it. (Why should we?)
Arriving at Uluru (Ayers Rock) to find all the motel rooms booked, he spends a couple of
hours staring at the natural wonder, then turns back. He nearly runs out of gas in the
outback, but doesn't. He gets chased through a park by an unseen dog, but nothing
comes of it. And finally, at the end of his journey, realizing he's only seen a pathetically
small portion of the country, fantasizes about pushing on and seeing more but finally
admits "he didn't think it would fly" with the wife.
And that is it. He goes home. In fact, it feels as if he could have written much the same
book without ever leaving home.