by John Dicker & r & & r & American Vertigo by Bernhard-Henri L & eacute;vy & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & B & lt;/span & ernard-Henri L & eacute;vy, one of those French intellectuals we just don't get much of stateside -- brilliant thinker, agile writer, elegant dresser, married to a model, politically engaged enough to go to Sarajevo and film a war documentary -- is also one of those French intellectuals Americans don't have to be afraid hates us: He doesn't. Liberal but not leftist, deeply critical but not hysterically postmodern about it, he's fascinated, intrigued, impressed by America: He likes us and isn't condescending about it. Yes, he thinks we were wrong to go into Iraq; he can't believe a self-proclaimed Christian country still embraces the death penalty; and he thinks Guantanamo is a horrific gash in America's image that won't soon heal. But L & eacute;vy, like Alexis de Tocqueville, remains impressed by our vigor, our optimism, our faith -- in the country, in a God in heaven, and in the God we seem to find in ourselves.
A couple of years ago, The Atlantic Monthly contracted L & eacute;vy to pull a new Democracy in America: They asked him to trace Tocqueville's journey and to write about it for them. American Vertigo vastly expands on those articles, taking L & eacute;vy from the mountains to the prairies, from the redwood forest to the Gulf Stream waters. On the way, he visits prisons (including Guantanamo) and cities (mourning Detroit, falling in love with Seattle and Savannah, Georgia), hires both a lap dancer and a hooker in Vegas (just to interview them, mind you), and investigates coal mines in Utah, the Mayo Clinic in St. Paul, Mount Rushmore (noting that its sculptor was a Ku Klux Klan member), a Church of Christ megachurch in Memphis, a MoveOn.org meeting in Berkeley, an Amish community in Des Moines, the Dallas street where JFK was assassinated. He contemplates the nuts who think creationism is science, the phenomenon of home schooling, stock car races in Knoxville, Tenn., and the spectacle of Sharon Stone pontificating about politics. He interviews neocon thinkers (Bill Kristol), actors (Warren Beatty, Woody Allen), tycoons (George Soros), writers (Norman Mailer), pols (Barack Obama, Hillary, John Kerry) and big-time intellectuals (Francis Fukuyama).
It's a dizzying, heady itinerary, with L & eacute;vy gamely writing thousand-word essays on everything he experiences, and though much of what he writes is familiar enough -- his essay on Los Angeles harps on the fact that the city doesn't have a center -- the cumulative effect of reading the book is like taking a crash course in American Studies in the back seat of a Chevy screaming down Route 66.