Notwithstanding the title, Lévy attempts to discourage readers from comparing his book with Tocqueville’s, which he admits he barely knew before his journey to America. It is impossible to avoid the comparison, however, given the subtitle and the assignment to retrace Tocqueville’s footsteps. Still, there are marked differences. Tocqueville’s book investigates a form of government that was innovative in his time, the American democracy, and the citizens who lived under this system. Lévy engages in episodic meandering and produces a travelogue whose form owes as much to Beat author Jack Kerouac as to Tocqueville, though in the end Lévy does deliver some forceful analysis of what he has observed. (Lévy, 15-259)

There are marked similarities between the two books as well. Tocqueville’s Democracy in America offered high praise for the democratic experiment, along with earnest warnings about the tyranny of the majority. In the same vein, Lévy’s American Vertigo energetically defends the United States against “this sinister and French and largely European passion that is known as anti-Americanism,” though he himself deplores those Americans whom he views as obsessed with consumerism and “drugged on patriotism” and despises the country’s leader, President George W. Bush — Lévy calls him “something of a child.” (Lévy, 15-259)

Thanks to Lévy’s international celebrity status (Vanity Fair called him “Superman and prophet”) and the prestige of The Atlantic, he had entrée to prominent Americans in many fields: luminaries of the Democratic and Republican presidential nominating conventions of 2004; Hollywood figures such as Warren Beatty, Sharon Stone, and Woody Allen; and world-class authors Norman Mailer and James Ellroy. Lévy also talked with many ordinary people, including sex workers and lap dancers, college students, and Pentecostal Christians. Like Tocqueville, Lévy visited several U.S. prisons and made his own trenchant assessment. Indeed, the commentary on the American penal system is among the strongest points of Lévy’s otherwise uneven literary performance. (Lévy, 15-259)

American Vertigo comprises two parts. The first two-thirds (titled “Le Voyage en Amérique”) is devoted to the author’s 15,000-mile journey through the Pacific Northwest, the Midwest, the South, and New England. This section, though rich in detail, reads less like a polished narrative than like a set of travel notes. On one hand, it contains not a few overblown descriptions, with some sentences running an entire page long. On the other hand, this section contains many incomplete sentences — “Baffling story. Singular situation. Nothing in common, in fact, with the fundamentalists. . . . Yearning for secession” — giving his delivery a staccato feel. Because of these stylistic traits, something about the sights and sounds he is observing becomes lost in translation.

Similarly, several of the interviews with prominent people can be frustratingly sketchy, although Lévy is seldom shy about disclosing his opinion of his interviewees. Richard Perle, the neoconservative philosopher and former government official, surprises Lévy with a strong critique of the Bush administration’s conduct of the war in Iraq. For a while it looks as though Perle and Lévy — who openly detests neoconservatism, Bush, and the Iraq War — might find some common ground. In the end, Lévy remarks to the reader, “I tell myself that this man [Perle] and I surely don’t belong to the same family. This is where I stand.” (Lévy, 15-259)

At times, Lévy engages in idle speculation that is downright absurd, as when he imagines “a chorus of furies” denouncing a presidential run by Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton. Referring to the affair between President Bill Clinton and White House intern Monica Lewinsky in the Oval Office, he imagines these “furies” demanding to know if American voters would “want a female president who, instead of having a head for business, would only be obsessed . . . with what happened there — no, here, beneath this desk, on this corner of the carpet?” (Lévy, 15-259)

Lévy professes a great admiration for the United States while generally deploring what he calls “the thick ignorance of European anti-Americanism,” but, paradoxically, as a traveler he often zeroes in on the sordid side of the American lifestyle. As if determined to report on the culture’s most sensational aspects, he seeks out strip clubs and bordellos, churches obsessed with marketing their faith, and a Texas gun show where Nazi paraphernalia are sold. One is compelled to ask how the overrepresentation of the sleazy side in his itinerary validates Lévy’s claims of affection for America. The most likely answer is in his perception of the United States as a nation of contradictions — hardly an original assessment among visiting foreign pundits. In fact, if there is anything unique about this appraisal, it lies in Lévy’s colorful and ambivalent exposition: “this magnificent, mad country, laboratory of the best and the worst, greedy and modest, . . . puritan and outrageous, facing toward the future and yet obsessed with its memories.” (Lévy, 15-259)

Toward the close of the first section, beginning to sum up his impressions, Lévy forsakes ambivalence to make some very straightforward — and sound — observations, especially about the U.S. prison system. He visited five prisons on the U.S. mainland, expecting them to provide “answers about the nature of the society that has bred” this system. When he comes to a sixth prison, Guantánamo Bay, he perceives that this complex, though isolated from the mainland and reserved for suspected “enemy combatants” who are denied ordinary rights, is nevertheless a microcosm of the entire system: He argues that Guantánamo, “as we’ll see, is not unconnected to the other five [prisons]” and that its “most revolting and unacceptable characteristics can be quite directly explained by the general regime of detention that I was able to observe elsewhere and that says much, unfortunately, about contemporary America.” Lévy enumerates the direct resemblances between Guantánamo and the other five prisons: its “undertow of violence” as on Rikers Island, its “policy of isolation and banishment” as at Alcatraz, the “absence of perspective and of horizon” as at Angola, and so on. Later, to sum up Guantánamo, he adds, “What you are bound to recognize is that it is a miniature, a condensation, of the entire American prison system.” (Lévy, 15-259)

The book’s final one-third, presenting Lévy’s ruminations (“Reflections”) about where he has been and what he has seen, is more cogent than the first part. It is in this section, too, that Lévy addresses crucial questions about the country that preoccupy him. Acknowledging his debt to Tocqueville (“Was there a better guide to lead me . . . ?”), he adds, “But the questions, for the main part, are my own.” (Lévy, 15-259)

As Lévy sees it, this “vertigo” is indicated by a wide variety of disparate symptoms, including an obsession with the “crumbling” past and what he calls “A social obesity. An economic, financial, and political obesity.” In effect, Lévy is arguing that many American institutions have grown larger than is necessary to deliver their required services. (Lévy, 15-259)

Nevertheless, in a supremely hopeful mood, he concludes that “in the sheer fact of being American, or at least expressing yourself like one and wanting to be one, there is a gentleness, a lightness, an element of freedom and, in a word, of civilization, that makes this country one of the few countries in the world where, despite everything, you can still breathe freely today.” (Lévy, 15-259)

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