The Golden Door: Letters To America by A.A. Gill
Weidenfeld and Nicholson $39.99
No one can be indifferent to America. Both familiar and alien, it looms over the world, a monstrous, polarising presence. From Frances Trollope through de Tocqueville, Dickens and down to Christopher Hitchens and Stephen Fry, few writers have been unable to resist the temptation to give us their views on the United States. Now A.A. Gill has joined in.
The devices that have earned his journalistic reputation - or notoriety - are on display. There is the liberal, gratuitous abuse, frequently focused on nationality lines. The French "confuse unadorned direct language with a lack of culture" and "aren't to be trusted". Anglo-Saxons have "an insecure desire to be liked and appreciated". Ulster is a "dour, humourless and unlovable little community".
"What is the point of shooting a Swiss," he asks. "There'd just be another one there in the morning, wearing the same grey suit, polishing his rimless glasses."
On New York, he says, "No one in their right mind would build a city here. Well, only the Dutch." Still, from someone who once described the Welsh as "loquacious dissemblers, immoral liars, stunted, bigoted, dark, ugly, pugnacious little trolls" that's possibly a compliment.
Gill can never resist the temptation to make a joke, even a cheap one, and many are very funny. He features himself in the anecdotes and, like so many reformed addicts, parades his former excesses with pride. Writers are never mundane, sad drunks or dopeheads. They are always giants of heroic abuse. Gill is no exception with his boasts of drinking everyone under the table.
But if Gill can be irritating, he is also enlightening, for along with his mannerisms he brings a keen intelligence to his subject. What makes this book singularly different is that it does not merely describe what America is but relates history to explain how it became that way. He has longstanding family connections with America - as have millions the world over, for it is quintessentially the nation of immigrants.
His title is taken from the famous lines: "Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door." What those who passed through that golden door have made is a unique society and Gill is an unapologetic admirer of what they have built.
He savages what he describes as the received wisdom of the Western middle classes that America is a stupid place with a convincing demonstration that it is anything but dumb. He points out that those who accuse America of being fascist and reactionary often owe their nation's and their personal freedom to American intervention and their concepts of freedom, quality and civil rights to the same source.
While an admirer, he is not blinded by America and he spends entertaining sections on those aspects of American life which most of us find so inexplicable. There are terrific chapters on the American obsessions with guns, the electric chair, breasts, and the American dream. The sheer battiness of much American religion is given a good working-over and the extraordinary American excess in food is put into some historical context. For most of the world, including America itself, the US exists only on screen and Gill's take on the movies is, like the rest of the book, a lively and convincing analysis.
Nations are mocked for regarding themselves as exceptions but this account makes a persuasive case that America is as extraordinary as its citizens believe.
John Gardner is an Auckland reviewer.