Several years ago, needing something to read, I was poking around a bookstore. A couple aisles over, I could hear an odd cackling sound coming from the travel section. It was rather loud: People all over the store were looking up to see what was going on.
I walked over there to see a middle-aged man, his face contorted into the kind of grin that makes your jaw hurt after a while. Then came the cackling again, followed by a sigh as he wiped a tear of laughter from his eye.I maneuvered myself into position to see what he was reading. It was "Neither Here Nor There," by someone named Bill Bryson. I could also see that it was the store's only copy.
Eventually the cackling man put the book back on the shelf, after carefully folding over the corner of a page to mark his place. Before he could turn back I reached past him and snatched the book. The grin vanished from his face and he shot me a glance that would, in the words of P.G. Wodehouse, open an oyster at 20 paces.
I barely noticed. I opened the book at random and started reading. It was a book about traveling through Europe, and here was Bryson's description of ordering Kalbsbrann in a restaurant in Bavaria with his friend Stephen Katz:
"A minute later the proprietor appeared at our table, looking hesitant and embarrassed, wringing his hands on a slaughterhouse apron.
" `Excuse me so much gentlemans,' he said, `but are you knowing what Kalbsbrann is?'
"We looked at each other and allowed that we did not.
"`It is, how you say, what ze little cow thinks wiz.' "
Soon I was cackling to myself and heading to the cash register, avoiding the glance of the no-longer-cackling man who wasn't going to get the book back. The phrase is much overused these days, but "Neither Here Nor There" was literally, demonstrably, laugh-out-loud funny.
When I finished it I immediately went out and bought Bryson's "The Lost Continent," his tale of traveling through small-town America. It was, if anything, even funnier. Next I read "The Mother Tongue" and "Made in America," Bryson's histories of the English language, which managed to be both scholarly and hilarious at the same time. Then I read "Notes from a Small Island," a hysterical account of Bryson's journey around Great Britain.
These books were not always easy to find: Bryson regularly tops the best-seller lists in Britain, where he has lived most of the last 20 years, but the Iowa-born author is not as well-known as he ought to be in his native land.
I'm betting this will change with the publication of "A Walk in the Woods," (Broadway Books) Bry-son's tale of walking - or at least attempting to walk - the Appalachian Trail, which runs 2,100 miles along the spine of the eastern seaboard, from Georgia to Maine.
Part of book's charm comes from the fact that Bryson was breathtakingly ill-suited to the task, after, as he put it, "years of waddlesome sloth." Hardly a hair-shirted outdoorsman, Bryson obsessed about the dangers he'd face: "The woods were full of peril - rattlesnakes and water moccasins and nests of copperheads; bobcats, bears, coyotes, wolves and wild boar; loony hillbillies destabilized by gross quantities of impure corn liquor and generations of profoundly unbiblical sex; rabies-crazed skunks, raccoons, and squirrels; merciless fire ants . . ."
I recently asked Bryson what possessed him to set out on a journey of this sort.
"I thought I was going to do a really long version of a Lake District walk - a Lake District walk times a thousand," he said, referring to the region of Britain. "I thought I'd lose some weight, get fit and see a bit of the country. I had no idea how difficult and demanding it was going to be."
One of the surprises of the book, for dedicated Bryson readers, was his choice of hiking partners: Stephen Katz, his Europe companion of 25 years ago and comic foil from "Neither Here Nor There."
I wondered why Bryson would go on another trip with Katz, and why, after what he'd written about his erstwhile pal, Katz would go with him.
"I was really uneasy with the idea of going by myself. I asked everyone I knew to go with me, and Katz was the only one who said yes," Bryson said. "He's been an unbelievably good sport about everything. I knew that I'd have a lot of comic material with him along, and it gave the book the dimension of being a sequel."
Katz is a one-dimensional cartoon character in "Neither Here Nor There," but in "A Short Walk" his efforts to cope with alcoholism give him depth and poignancy. By the end of the book I could see why Bryson, beneath it all, was so fond of him.
One of Bryson's stated goals was to rediscover America after 20 years (he moved back to New England before beginning the hike), but the America he rediscovered was the America of 200 years ago.
"We'd stand up on a mountaintop and look out over miles and miles of unbroken wilderness," he said. "If you wanted to step back into the world of Daniel Boone, this was it."
In the end, Bryson, like all but a few who set out each spring to walk from Georgia to Maine, failed to achieve their goal. By his estimate he walked 870 miles, or 39.5 percent of the Appalachian Trail.
His misfortune was our good fortune: Bill Bryson has produced a book that has once again left me cackling out loud and grinning until my jaw ached.