Garrison Keillor, no red-stater but nonetheless an enthusiastic romanticist of small-town American life, reviews the latest book by French sociologist Benard-Henri Lévy, American Vertigo: Traveling America in the Footsteps of Tocqueville for the New York Times Book Review and finds it to be superficial and off-the-mark:
Any American with a big urge to write a book explaining France to the French should read this book first, to get a sense of the hazards involved. Bernard-Henri Lévy is a French writer with a spatter-paint prose style and the grandiosity of a college sophomore; he rambled around this country at the behest of The Atlantic Monthly and now has worked up his notes into a sort of book. It is the classic Freaks, Fatties, Fanatics & Faux Culture Excursion beloved of European journalists for the past 50 years, with stops at Las Vegas to visit a lap-dancing club and a brothel; Beverly Hills; Dealey Plaza in Dallas; Bourbon Street in New Orleans; Graceland; a gun show in Fort Worth; a "partner-swapping club" in San Francisco with a drag queen with mammoth silicone breasts; the Iowa State Fair ("a festival of American kitsch"); Sun City ("gilded apartheid for the old");a stock car race; the Mall of America; Mount Rushmore; a couple of evangelical megachurches; the Mormons of Salt Lake; some Amish; the 2004 national political conventions; Alcatraz - you get the idea. (For some reason he missed the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally, the adult video awards, the grave site of Warren G. Harding and the World's Largest Ball of Twine.) You meet Sharon Stone and John Kerry and a woman who once weighed 488 pounds and an obese couple carrying rifles, but there's nobody here whom you recognize. In more than 300 pages, nobody tells a joke. Nobody does much work. Nobody sits and eats and enjoys their food. You've lived all your life in America, never attended a megachurch or a brothel, don't own guns, are non-Amish, and it dawns on you that this is a book about the French. There's no reason for it to exist in English, except as evidence that travel need not be broadening and one should be wary of books with Tocqueville in the title.
Although I have not read his book and therefore am not really qualified to comment, I had formed a similar impression of Lévy, after listening to him for five minutes being interviewed by John Stewart. He claims to be out to dispel the stereotypes of Americans for his French readers, but ends up reinforcing them at every turn. As a result, he comes off as either hypocritical or clueless about his subject, and doesn't do much to dispel American stereotypes of the French as arrogant, judgmental and elitist.
My own experience as regards France and its people is largely positive. True, I don't care for France's role on the global stage ("a moral compass has to have a butt end" as humorist P.J. O'Rourke observed), and most of us have had at least one or two experiences with snooty French waiters at one time or another, but at the grassroots level, I have had mostly positive experiences with everyday French citizens, who have hosted me in their homes and were gracious guests in mine.
I was hoping that Levy's excursion across this country would be more of an acknowledgement of that reality. And perhaps to some readers, it is just that. But it's telling that he can't even persuade Garrison Keillor to go along for the ride.