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Book 12

  1. Stone, Irving — The Agony and the Ecstasy (439 of 763 pages)
  2. Morpurgo, Michael — The Mozart Question (68 pages)
  3. Unsworth, Barry — Stone Virgin (312 pages)
  4. Phillips, Caryl — The Nature of Blood (212 pages)
  5. Howard, Robert E. — The Conan Chronicles, Volume 1: The People of the Black Circle (549 pages)
  6. Lockwood, Richard & Steve Potz-Rayner — A Little Book of Lies (170 pages)
  7. Vickers, Hugh — Great Operatic Disasters (65 pages)
  8. Howard, Robert E. — The Conan Chronicles, Volume 2: The Hour of the Dragon (574 pages)
  9. Rennison, Nick — 100 Must-Read Classic Novels (164 pages)
  10. Augustine of Hippo (John K. Ryan, translator) — The Confessions of Saint Augustine (422 pages)
  11. Fitzgerald, F. Scott — The Great Gatsby (146 pages)
  12. Harrison, Fraser — Infinite West: Travels in South Dakota (188 pages)
Page count
3309
book cover: Infinite West.

I really wanted to like this book. I really did. For two reasons. I have fond memories of a trip through South Dakota. And I was given a free copy of Infinite West by the publisher in exchange for the promise of a review. I feel embarrassed that the promised review is mostly negative.

At first blush I wouldn't have thought South Dakota an obvious subject for a book. But then again, I wouldn't have thought it an obvious destination for a trip back in 1996 either.

But South Dakota has a distinctive feel to it that makes it feel different from any other state I've been to or through (which is 40-42 of the 51, counting DC). It left a distinct impression on me. A few distinct impressions.

The first was of trying too hard. Practically from the moment one enters the state, driving west on I-90 from Minnesota, one is assaulted by billboard after billboard proclaiming one of the state's treasures: Corn Palace, only 100 miles; Wall Drug, only 300 miles; the Badlands; Mount Rushmore — over and over again every few hundred meters, steadily counting down the mileage. We were beaten into submission, brainwashed into actually wanting to see what all the fuss is about. And then the sheer gaudiness and tackiness of the Corn Palace made me start wondering in what alien land I found myself.

But the impressions shifted to the other end of the spectrum. The splendor and other-worldliness of the Badlands took my breath away and reinforced this feeling of being in a strange new world, but in a wholly positive way. And then the majesty and symbolism of Mount Rushmore filled me with awe.

I had approached South Dakota with low expectations and was blown away. Thus, I approached Infinite West: Travels in South Dakota with heightened expectations and was, sadly, left flat.

The author is a Brit, and I suspect I was targeted for the book giveaway because of my London address. Interestingly, though, Mr Harrison states at one point that his intended audience is not on this side of the Pond. He wanted to give Americans a non-American's perspective on Americana. Unfortunately, he spends altogether too much time somewhere other than South Dakota. Or making unflattering remarks about the people and places he encounters. And the prose is littered with references and mannerisms someone outside the British Isles is unlikely to understand.

The book is published by the South Dakota State Historical Society Press, which inclines me to believe they want to promote the state as a travel destination. And, indeed, as I started reading I commented to my fiancée that I would like us to visit South Dakota; but the book has almost succeeded in putting me off, not the sort of reaction I suspect the South Dakota State Historical Society Press desires.

I suspect Mr Harrison may not have been aware of the extent to which he seemed to be putting down his subjects. He certainly said flattering things about several people he met, but the effect always seemed to be of backhanded flattery. His depictions seemed condescending. I felt almost as if he sneered at the residents of the various towns: for their conservative religious beliefs, for not being better informed about their state, for their lack of sophistication, you name it. I don't believe it was malicious, but the overall impression was off-putting.

However, the travel writer is allowed to have his opinions about the people he encounters. Bruce Chatwin draws some very unflattering portraits of some of the aboriginal people he encountered, and it doesn't make Songlines any less brilliant. Yet Chatwin and other great travel writers, even when ranging all over the globe in various asides, were still writing at some level about their subject. I felt Harrison was too often elsewhere: by a river in Liverpool, in Soho, with his grandchild at home, in Jordan or Venice; and rather than enhance or amplify his subject they pulled us away. These constant reminiscences of other places or times in his life were simply not interesting, and I struggled not to tune him out.

There was one effective — I'll even venture to say good — chapter, and that was the chapter on Wounded Knee. Harrison succeeded in evoking the place. The secret was he kept his focus on Wounded Knee, recounting the tragic events of December 29, 1890, analyzing photos of the aftermath, vividly describing the landmarks and geography, sympathetically portraying the people he spoke with. I would even say this chapter might be worth anthologizing in a collection of travel writing or essays about the American West.

If Harrison had written about Mount Rushmore, the Black Hills, the Badlands, Deadwood, and the rest of the state the way he did about Wounded Knee, this could have been a very good book. Instead it came across as indulgent — the chapter on Harrison, written only because the town shares his name, did not add much of interest; and I really did not need to read so much about his children and grandchildren — and missed out a lot of what makes South Dakota unique. (No mention at all of the Corn Palace and only a passing reference to the onslaught of billboards. It seems South Dakota is only the Missouri River and the southwest corner of the state! If I didn't know my geography, I would hardly know from this book that Pierre is the state's capital. And speaking of geography, a map of the state would have been very useful.)

I really wanted to like this book. I really did. But in the end a friend's observation (that Infinite West seems a pun on Infinite Jest) seemed more appropriate.

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