I love travelogues, and I love Stephen Fry, but I wasn’t in love with this book. I started off quite bored, and eventually did grow to enjoy it, but I think I went in with incorrect expectations.
This is an account of Stephen Fry’s trip around America to visit all 50 states, during which he also filmed a six-part television series for the BBC under the same name. I haven’t seen the series, and I can’t say I’m itching to go find it after reading this. He starts his trip in New England, heads down to the south, and then travels through the midwest and along the pacific coast. He then skips up to Alaska and finishes in Hawaii. He travels the whole thing, excluding Alaska and Hawaii, in his London black cab. I think he travels in a sort of ‘W’ pattern, but they surprisingly didn’t include a map of the entire route in the book.
Because this was such a whirlwind of a trip, with such a lot of ground to cover, we get an incredibly superficial look at each state. I feel like Stephen Fry is someone who would typically go into depth when tackling any topic, so I guess I just wasn’t expecting this, even though I really should have. In most cases he basically does whatever the stereotypical activity of that state might be and moves on. Maine: lobstering. Kentucky: bourbon distillery. Louisiana: Mardi Gras. Nevada: brothel. Now, obviously you’re going to do it that way, and I actually can’t think of what else I should have been expecting, but it just made for a dull read at times.
I think part of the problem was I just read In a Sunburned Country, which was just my kind of travel book – someone travels from point A to point B, stops at various locations along the way, and somewhat aimlessly wanders about while explaining the history and interesting facts. Again, I knew Stephen Fry in America was written in conjunction with a documentary series, so I really shouldn’t be surprised at the format.
While I’m not American, I’m right next door, so most likely this particular travelogue wasn’t aimed at me. It’s not exactly an exotic destination for Canadians, so a basic overview isn’t all that exciting. The same format in a country I’m less familiar with would probably work just fine, but for a travelogue through America or Canada, I think I need a little something extra to hold my interest.
I’m being quite negative, but I did enjoy some of this book. Stephen Fry is still funny, and he really doesn’t hold any punches when describing the people he comes across. If he doesn’t like a situation or person he was honest, hilarious, and borderline cruel. Call me petty, but I loved that. I imagine he wasn’t quite as honest about his feelings in front of the camera. He is also really in love with the country, and the enthusiasm does rub off on the reader, so that made it a lot more pleasurable. He jokes that his father nearly took a job in America, and that he very easily could have grown up as Steve rather than Steven. This trip felt like more than just another paid gig for him. It felt like he was accomplishing something that he’d wanted to do for a long time, and that really saved the whole book.
So overall, I did enjoy parts of his, but it wasn’t really my kind of travelogue. Apparently the popularity of the television program prompted the BBC to start airing QI, so if nothing else this book gave us that.