Plenty of authors have had their books adapted into movies, but only one has been played by Robert Redford — and that's dear old Bill Bryson, with his frumpy tweed jackets and owlish spectacles.
"A Walk in the Woods" may not have been a particularly good movie, but it was a rather good book, and it remains Bryson's bestselling work in America.
In Britain, Bryson's adopted home, his most popular book is "Notes From a Small Island," which sold like hot teacakes and was once voted "the book that best represents England" in a readers' poll. Twenty years after his affectionate paean to the Britain he fell in love with (and married into), Bryson travels the country again, only to find that — surprise, surprise — it has changed.
He does not like it. Not one bit.
Don't get me wrong — Bryson loves Britain. But his version of it is stubbornly rooted in nostalgic theme park territory: bucolic landscapes, picturesque fishing villages, old pubs, red telephone boxes. Of course those things exist (and Bryson makes every effort to seek them out), but mostly Britain today is a lot like anywhere else, which is to say full of people who are going to work and driving cars and shopping and don't necessarily have the time or energy to be cheerful and polite all the time.
This upsets, nay, utterly discombobulates Bryson, who relates numerous stories of confrontations with people he bemoans as "all the hopeless, inept f***wits that God has strewn along the Bill Bryson Highway of Life."
The litany of his dislikes and disapprovals is long and fervently expressed: hair gel, litter, Trip Advisor and his "reflex loathings," which include power walkers, "those vibrating things restaurants give you to let you know when a table is ready," lawyers, pigeons and Douglas Brinkley (a particularly unkind reviewer of one of Bryson's previous books).
Despite all this cantankerousness, his strange encounters and scathing put-downs are genuinely hilarious — and who doesn't despise pigeons and litterbugs? At Bryson's age, he can (and does) feel entitled not only to be done with such ugliness, but also to express his displeasure in ways most of us only dream of daring to do.
And when he sees beauty and wonder in the world, he is rhapsodic — even evangelical — about it. (His wonderment at Stonehenge, his utter joy at discovering a magnificent meadow in the shadow of Heathrow airport, his ability to turn an evening of quite catastrophically dreadful service in an English pub into a beer-soaked evening of merriment.)
"What a wonderful world that was, and how remote it seems now." Bryson is referring to "the good old days" of airline travel, but it sums up his feelings about pretty much everything he encounters on his occasionally sad, often delightful, frequently funny and always grumpy road trip.
Paul Duncan is the Star Tribune's special sections editor. He grew up in England.