book reviews

Books About America

Stephen Fry in America
Fifty States and the Man Who Set Out To See Them All
by Stephen Fry


H ow much do Europeans know about America that is really true? Not much, in spite of the fact--or maybe because of the fact--that they watch all our movies and TV shows, and get to see our soldiers up close every time we invade and conquer their country to save them from totalitarianism. Londoner Stephen Fry set out on a fifty-state trek to find out more about that vast, uncharted wilderness that is America. In so doing, he tells Americans how Europeans see us.

To Europeans, everything revolves around social class. While an American might write about the architecture or the traffic, Fry goes sailing off ritzy Newport, R.I., without bothering to eating a grinder; he hobnobs with the ultra-rich and ultra-coiffed in Houston but bypasses NASA and Texas City. Most of his two pages about Ohio are about Neil Young's dreary 1970 hippy ditty about Kent State. His entire stay in West Virginia was spent inside a coal mine. Maryland is all Annapolis and Pennsylvania is all Gettysburg. None of these have much to do with how most real Americans live, and perhaps that's the point. Europeans don't want to hear about boring stuff like being stuck for three hours on I-495 in 99°F and 95% humidity listening to commercial after commercial on the radio, or Fry's thoughts about tenements, abandoned steel mills, and microprocessor fabrication plants. Europeans select what they want to see to fit their political prejudices. To Europeans, traveling through America will always be like being in a game preserve. You can almost hear Stephen Fry saying, "Crikey! 'E's really mad now!" as he pokes a six-foot-two crew-cut ex-Marine from Tampa, Florida in the rear with a stick.

His politics are, no doubt, standard Europeanism: his constant sniping and his comparisons of America with the USSR, and his (typically European) casual use of the term “genocide” are made sufferable only by his self-deprecating humor and his refreshing, and utterly convincing, admissions of ignorance.

Of course, Fry realizes that if he loses his GPS, he'll be stuck here, driving aimlessly forever, on one side of the road or the other, in his big black British taxicab. If Stephen Fry--a likeable guy who is fairly positive about America, and who has actually been here--thinks that wetbacks got their name because they swam across the Rio Grande, what bizarre stuff do the rest of them think they know? I shudder to think.

Jul 4, 2010