Early on in Bill Bryson's supposedly "rollicking" new travelogue, "In a Sunburned Country," he notes "the low but relentless piped music" on Australian trains. After 300 pages in his company, you, too, may wish somebody would turn off the entertainment. True, after such best sellers as "A Walk in the Woods," about hiking the Appalachian Trail, only a fool would monkey with the Bryson formula: solid research leavened with middle-aged misadventures and wry commentary. But Australia, with its bizarre history, surreal wildlife and Dantesque landscape -- both infernal and paradisal -- needs no spicing up. And Bryson's leaden whimsy and faux-conversational tone make him an intensely annoying Virgil.
Even Bryson's incessant claims that this, that or the other thing is "wonderful," "fabulous," "quite wonderful" or "really quite fabulous" won't entirely kill your sense of awe. Australia has a ranch the size of Belgium and a single school district the size of France -- pupils and teachers communicate by radio. It has the planet's deadliest snake (the taipan's venom is 50 times more lethal than the cobra's) and the box jellyfish, "the most poisonous creature on earth," which makes postcard-perfect beaches useless all summer. In 1972 cattle died from eating the seeds of a tree "thought to have vanished from the earth 100 million years ago"; in one pitiless desert, an explorer's horse, delirious with thirst, "plunged its nose into a campfire" in hope of relief.
But Bryson could have learned all this from the books in his three-page bibliography. What do we gain by this in-person foray from his study in New Hampshire? A tired set piece on how boring cricket is. A Pickwickian scene where he gets lost in a park and ends up, embarrassed, in somebody's backyard. (Are we rollicking yet?) A weirdly prim episode in which he visits a pet-supply-and-porn shop ("The participants were human, not animal. More than that I am unwilling to say"). More than enough of his drinking beer by his lonesome in restaurants, hoping somebody will talk to him. (Reporting isn't his strong suit.) And the Bryson "voice" slathered all over everything. ("I just have to say this." "Don't get me wrong." "Here's the thing." "I ask you." "That's all I'm saying.") The wealth of gee-whiz factoids almost make "In a Sunburned Country" worth the trip. But shake your tour guide the first chance you get.In a Sunburned CountryBill Bryson
307 pages. $25