The Golden Door: Letters to America by AA Gill - review

by Listener Archive / 03 January, 2013
A caustic critic finds love in the US.
The Golden Door by AA Gill AA Gill, a critic for the Sunday Times, ranks among the most well-regarded British reviewers of the day. His name is affectionately known wherever fine restaurants and excellent television shows are trashed. But can he traverse the significant journalistic distance between eyeing up food menus and the small screen and doing book-length justice to something of the size and complexity of the United States?

His love for the country suggests a positive answer. Unlike the usual subjects of Gill’s daytime job, the American dream belongs to Gill’s fondest imaginings, and The Golden Door figures less as criticism than unalloyed praise, by turns earnest, intoxicated, even a bit too clever by half. He feels this way because he’s lived there a couple of times, in New York and rural Kentucky, and clearly the Edinburgh-born author took good notes while he was at it.

As Gill and his publicists tell it, the book also serves as a long-overdue corrective to the endemic anti-Americanism of the British chattering class. That’s probably stretching things a bit. Notable British journalistic types – Julian Barnes, Jonathan Freedland, Simon Hoggart, Bernard Levin, Toby Young, and all the rest – have been falling for the US like ninepins for decades, many having already produced upbeat accounts about the experience that have been rather well received by their country’s opinion leaders. New Zealand chatterers may feel differently, but that’s another story.

Gill’s own story has been put together in a familiar package. The Golden Door is not a fully digested narrative but rather a collection of essays riding on just the one punchy theme of America the Joyful. Whack, whack, whack. Here we read about the skyscrapers and sex, there about philanthropy and the movies, the moonshine and the mercantile muscle of New York City, all sounds and sweet air.

Gill always writes well, sometimes too well, with some of the more eloquent gloss only wearing the thinnest smear of facts. On the matter of religion, for instance, there’s a paean of praise (the sentence here is plucked almost at random) to the American emphasis on “belief, the pulpit and the lectern, the long, long Low Church tradition as opposed to the rote, repeated litany, the rhythms of Methodism and Non-conformist ranting combined with the rhythms and circumlocutions of the King James Bible, that is in turns bare observation and courtly Hebrew syntax.”

Nice line. Only problem is, nearly half the King James Bible was translated from Greek, and any syntactical courtliness to marvel at across its 66 books is surely in the English rendering rather than from Hebrew, a language classically light on its feet. Which is to say, a bit like AA Gill at his best.

THE GOLDEN DOOR: LETTERS TO AMERICA, by AA Gill (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, $39.99).

David Cohen is a writer and media commentator.
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