As his many British fans already know, bearded Yankee butterball Bill Bryson specialises in going to countries we think we know well, only to return with travelogues that are surprisingly cynical and yet shockingly affectionate. It's a unique style, possibly best suited to the world's weirder destinations. It's helpful here: Bryson's latest subject is that oddest of continents, Australia.
For a start, there's the oddly nasty fauna and flora. Barely a page of Down Under is without its lovingly detailed list of lethal antipodean critters: sociopathic jellyfish, homicidal crocs, toilet-dwelling death-spiders, murderous shrubs (yes, shrubs). Bryson's absorbing and informative portrait is of a terrain so intractably vast, a land so climatically extreme, it seems expressly designed to daunt and torment humankind.
This very user-unfriendliness throws up another Aussie paradox. If the country is so hostile how come the natives are so laid back, so relaxed? As Bryson shuffles from state to state, he seeks the key to the uniquely cool Australian character and finds it in Australia's tragicomic past, her genetic seeding of convicts, explorers, gold diggers, outlaws. This is a country of lads and mates, of boozy gamblers--nowadays mellowed by sunshine and sporting success.
Down Under is a fine book. So it may not be quite as deliciously malicious as Bryson's The Lost Continent, nor as laugh-out-loud funny as Neither Here Nor There. But so what? A Bill Bryson on cruise control is better than most travel writers on turbodrive. --Sean Thomas