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BOOKS: ‘Stephen Fry in America’

- The Washington Times - Friday, January 29, 2010

STEPHEN FRY IN AMERICA: FIFTY STATES AND THE MAN WHO SET OUT TO SEE THEM ALL

By Stephen Fry

William Morrow, $34.99

314 pages

REVIEWED BY JEREMY LOTT

In 1831, French politician and thinker Alexis de Tocqueville visited the still growing United States, traveled widely and took copious notes. He assembled those notes in two volumes, published five years apart, titled "Democracy in America," that are still studied and quoted today. The title "Stephen Fry in America" echoes de Tocqueville's classic, but also puts the reader on notice that the ambition here is scaled back. This isn't an attempt to understand America, Mr. Fry says, as much as to experience it. And it's supposed to be as much a window into the author as subject.

Mr. Fry receives glancing recognition in the United States, but he's huge on the other side of the pond because he's so very British. He's an actor, writer, talking head, director and quiz-show host. He played Jeeves in "Jeeves and Wooster," Oscar Wilde in "Wilde" (like Wilde, Mr. Fry is gay and served time in prison, though in Mr. Fry's case for the theft of a credit card), and adapted Evelyn Waugh's novel "Vile Bodies" to film (as "Bright Young Things").

He created and co-starred in the sketch comedy "A Bit of Fry and Laurie" (with current "House M.D." star Hugh Laurie). He was a columnist for the Daily Telegraph, a novelist of some distinction and has written nonfiction books on his early, troubled life, on how to write poetry, and about endangered species. He hosts the popular comedy quiz show "QI" and regularly makes documentary miniseries for the BBC.

"Stephen Fry in America" is an outgrowth of a six-part BBC miniseries of the same name, and organization of the book is closely related to the show. Through nine months of filming, on and off, he at least sets foot in all 50 states, and often navigates American waters. He works a lobster boat off Eastport, Maine; sails off Newport, R.I. in an America's Cup winning vessel; canoes the Mississippi River; tours a nuclear submarine in Connecticut; ferries across Lake Champlain to New York; and swims with dolphins off Florida.

He also descends into a West Virginia coal mine, ascends in a hot-air balloon over North Carolina, goes hunting with plaid-wearing weekend warriors in upstate New York, canvasses New Hampshire with presidential hopeful Mitt Romney and does turning doughnuts on a Texas beach in his trademark London big black cab.

Mr. Fry confesses in the introduction that he undertook the project for a personal reason. "I was so nearly American. I was that close," he writes. His father, a scientist, had been offered a job at Princeton and turned it down. "One of the reasons he turned it down," Mr. Fry explains, "is that he didn't think he liked the idea of his children growing up American."

Stephen learned this when he was 10 and immediately created an alter ego named Steve. The miniseries and now the book were ways of exploring that alternate reality. What would Steve have been like? What might he have enjoyed about this great sprawling country? Fortunately, he doesn't lean on that doppelganger device too hard. It could get annoying.

This reviewer's favorite bit comes from Mr. Fry's visit to Ukiah, Calif., for the comic cultural contrasts. Mr. Fry is scheduled to fire handguns for the first time. At the police shooting range, Mr. Fry tells the patient sheriff that the town's name is haiku spelled backwards, badly bungles a witticism ("Just as well you aren't called Traf." "How's that?" "Oh never mind."), and lets the officer instruct him how to fire a Glock pistol. He takes aim, manages to hit the target on his first try, and is instantly though briefly "transformed from Stephen Tut-Tut, the wise and sensible anti-firearms abolitionist into Stephen Blam-Blam."

The sheriff then asks him, "Now that you can handle firearms, how'd you like to take part in a drug bust?" and isn't joking. We see a picture of Mr. Fry with a Kevlar vest strapped to him and scenes from the drug bust as proof of this.

Mr. Fry finds something nice to say about nearly every state that he visits, except for New Jersey. His visit to Atlantic City turns into an extended rant against Donald Trump and his Taj Mahal casino. ("There is nothing here that I would not be ashamed to be seen owning.") He visits all the states but only technically. Mr. Fry drives through Delaware and only briefly stops at the Montana state line, on the Continental Divide, and on the border with Idaho.

His specific observations are often dead-on but when he slips into generalizations, especially those involving American history, things can get ugly. He calls the shootings by the National Guard at Kent State during 1970 anti-war protests, which left four students dead, one paralyzed, and eight seriously injured, "Perhaps the most shameful and shocking example to date of ruthless state power perpetuated in America against its own citizens." Perhaps an editor should have asked Mr. Fry to consider the fiery FBI-Branch Davidian showdown in Waco, Texas.

This book has some good, short writing and some truly wonderful pictures. That makes it a great coffee table book or a supplement to the BBC series. But it's perhaps not the ideal introduction to Stephen Fry for the uninitiated.

Jeremy Lott is editor of Capital Research Center's Labor Watch newsletter and author of "The Warm Bucket Brigade: The Story of the American Vice Presidency."