Tuesday, July 30, 2013

To America with Love by A.A. Gill - Book Review

I really wanted to like A.A. Gill's To America with Love (Simon & Schuster, 2013, $25.00, 256 pages, originally published in Great Britain in 2012), but little things kept intruding on my consciousness to lead me first to question its accuracy and then to actually distrust not only the facts but the point of view underlying it. That's a shame, because there's much to the book that deserves admiration or that succeeds in simultaneously entertaining and enlightening. Gill, described as a provocateur, is that indeed. He was born in Edinburgh, but has lived in London for most of his life. He is a contributing editor at Vanity Fair. The book seeks to explain America to the British (and by extension to other Europeans) with typical arch British humor and a deeply ironic and satirical voice. His profile in Wikipedia describes him as being dyslexic, hiring readers to read text to him and copy editors to transcribe his badly mis-spelled output. This may mean that while his writing is sometimes inaccurate, so is his listening. If his goal is to provoke, he succeeds in spades. If he also wishes to shed real light on the American character and scene, he needs to do some more thinking and work. Still, this is a sometimes informative and often amusing book worth reading, particularly if one reads from a perspective of sufficient knowledge of America to keep it in context and recognize it for what it actually is.

Gill is a Scotsman, many of whose relatives have emigrated to America and been quite successful in business. Meanwhile, those who stayed behind have kept a scrapbook of cuttings following the adventures of his American cousins. Or at least that's the conceit he structures much of To American with Love around. He says, “I have often thought that Europe's view of America has been formed and deformed by the truth that we are the ones who stayed behind, for all those good, bad, and lazy reasons: for comfort, for conformity and obligation, but mostly I suspect because of habit and fear.” He therefore, semi-accurately describes much of the American experience as one of striving, adventure, freedom, and violence.

In seventeen mostly standalone essays, Gill considers elements of American history, politics, and pop culture, always from the viewpoint of an alien seeking to describe American culture to others who observe it from afar and participate in its world-wide output of music, film, and news through their own national cultural lens. Gill suggests that his Scottish/American heritage gives him a unique perspective for interpreting Americans to Europeans for the betterment of America. Gill is a master of that arch British turn of phrase and use of language which seeks, and usually finds, the perfect nasty words and quick judgments that can cement an impression. He's really good at it, and therein lies the pleasure and danger of this volume.

In a chapter on “Loneliness,” Gill pictures the dead and dying farm towns of middle America, where main streets have been decimated by Wal Marts along the Interstate highways and farm auctions are an every day occurrence, as the essence of middle America rather than seeing it as a systemic failure of our land to manage runaway commercialism and restless capitalism. This is all couched in seductive. beguiling language. But this discussion leads to an exploration of our love of wilderness and open space that results in the establishment of national parks and a national literature giving us Emerson, Thoreau, and Melville as well as Natty Bumpo, Ishmael, Shane, and Jack Reacher. Perhaps Gill's greatest talent it finding connections many of us wouldn't see and pointing them out.

His chapter on “Sex,” the bold title of the it, uses every word many Americans shy away from, at least publicly, to point out to us our puritanical nature. He then explores the American sexual experience through an analysis of the Playboy centerfold throughout the magazines history, always with an emphasis on the changing size and shape of air-brushed breasts. His emphasis, in the end, is upon our confusion, which should be no great insight to anyone growing up here. Meanwhile, he neglects to acknowledge the the emerging awareness of differences in sexuality and our growing accommodations of these differences.

Gill's chapter called “Evolution” uses the 1925 Scopes trial as the lens to look at the collision between our rational, enlightenment based culture and our biblical literalism, which have caused irreconcilable differences in America since the earliest days of the Pilgrims, through the first and second Great Revivals during the nineteenth century and on into the struggle between evolution and creationism, the creature of biblical literalists. He chooses the personalities and character of writer H.L. Mencken, lawyer Clarence Darrow, and politician/orator William Jennings Bryan as the center of this difficult and divisive struggle.

His chapter on Film begins with a thoughtful and interesting analysis of the influence of American film on world culture using D.W. Griffith's racist silent film The Birth of a Nation as his prime example for exploring the nature of film and its evolution in America. The discussion is utterly ruined, however, by the unpardonable racist slur against Barack Obama at chapter's end, using language no longer found in this country. Many other chapters deserve comment, especially “Moonshine” and “Germans,” but you get the idea.

A.A. Gill

Gill comments, “The repression that comes from freedom, freedom that allows titanic success and unimaginable wealth was also the freedpm to fail without let or hindrance. The freedom to be born into failure, the freedom to be cheated, conned, and plowed into failure, to be sucked down and fed with failure, to fail by color and history.” The book ends by asking the question that few Americans ask themselves. “Why has socialism not taken hold in America?” Somehow he seems to neglect to examine the effects of socialism upon his own country. It seems a strange ending to a book entitled To America with Love. Nevertheless, this book provides almost always interesting insight into aspects of American life and culture that we either take for granted or haven't considered. As such, its a valuable and thought provoking exploration written in an engaging, ironic style even while it often sacrifices accuracy for the pyrotechnic effects of language. I received ToAmerica with Love as an electronic galley from the publisher through Edelweiss and read it on my Kindle.