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    Hilarious travels in Australia

    By JACK REED

    © St. Petersburg Times, published September 10, 2000


    Last summer, I didn't want Bill Bryson's bestseller A Walk in the Woods to end, so when I saw a copy of his latest travel book, In a Sunburned Country, I grabbed it. I longed to relive the often hilarious, occasionally whining but always insightful travail he experienced hiking the Appalachian Trail. I guess I expected his travels in Australia, the subject of his new book, to become "A Walkabout in the Desert."

    Is it equal to the earlier book? Not really, although In a Sunburned Country is well stocked with Bryson's wit and wisdom. I think I know why the new book falls short of its predecessor, but before I get into that I want to make it clear: The new book is worth reading.

    Why? It's about Australia, probably the most unusual place on earth. Consider just a few of the facts about the only country that is a continent. Eighty percent of its plants and animals exist nowhere else. Its vast, arid interior is so remote and ignored that the shadowy Japanese cult Aum Shinrikyo is suspected of setting off a powerful explosion there in 1993, yet it went largely unnoticed and hardly investigated. Its unofficial national anthem, Waltzing Matilda, could be describing an obscene act if anyone really understood the lyrics.

    It is a fertile setting for Bryson's vivid paranoia that something in nature is out to maim, kill or eat him. Australia has the most deadly animals at all levels of the food chain: crocodiles, any number of poisonous snakes, a sea shell that bites and Bryson's favorite, the box jellyfish, ounce-for-ounce the deadliest creature on earth.

    When it comes to the two-legged animal, the antipodal variety is more wacky than lethal. A prime minister went for a swim one day and disappeared, apparently drowned; his countrymen honored him by putting his name on a public swimming pool. A 19th-century naturalist captured two small marsupials thought to be near extinction, but lost and hungry, he ate them.

    Bryson spends too little time on Australia's most intriguing people, the Aborigines, whose origins are still a mystery. It's hard to blame him. He was on a tight deadline (more on that later) and the Aborigines are nearly invisible, living on the fringes of cities or in inaccessible pockets of the outback. Bryson does include a couple of heart-breaking sections on the plight of the native people, who in the early days were hunted like animals and even as late as 1970 had their children taken by the state and put in foster homes or institutional schools.

    All of which is the richest of raw material for a narrator as skillful as Bryson. So why does this book fall short of A Walk in the Woods?

    First, the publisher rushed Bryson. Broadway Books gave him an early deadline and made him stick to it so the book would appear just before the Olympics, which begin this month in Sydney. Unlike his mock-heroic struggle on the Appalachian Trail, which was linear and unfolded naturally, Bryson's travels in Australia are circular and at times appear to serve no purpose beyond adding a chapter to the book.

    Also, this story needs a foil as worthy as Katz, the overweight boyhood friend who prepares for the "walk in the woods" by grocery shopping. In Australia, Bryson is mostly alone, although In a Sunburned Country has a bright moment of humorous camaraderie when he is joined on a drive deep into the outback by Allan Sherwin, a friend from England. The two engage in a funny beer-drinking marathon in an outback bar and live (barely) to tell the tale, if only they could remember it.

    The main reason this book failed to meet my expectations, however, comes down to Bryson's ironic bias: The king of cultural put-down, he loves Australia and nearly everything in it. That might be okay for another writer, but Bryson is at his best when his pen and tongue are dipped in the acid of misanthropy.

    Australia does sound like a fascinating place with friendly people, and the book left me wanting to know more about the country's natural history and Aborigines. Yet when I finished In a Sunburned Country, I didn't have the urge to call my travel agent. After A Walk in the Woods, however, I dreamed of tackling the Appalachian Trail and even hiked a stretch of it on my next vacation.

    None of this should keep readers from a trip to the bookstore for a copy of In a Sunburned Country, but drive the speed limit. No travel writer seamlessly blends humor, first-person experience, history, nature and sociology into a galloping tale as well as Bryson.

    Jack Reed is a St. Petersburg Times editorial writer.

    In a Sunburned Country

    By Bill Bryson

    Broadway Books, $25

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