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Stalking the Elephant: My Discovery of America

by James Laxer

Early on in Stalking the Elephant – a Canadian’s-eye-view of American politics and society – James Laxer’s antipathy for his subject becomes apparent. The book’s introduction, paranoid and petulant in tone, denounces what the author sees as latter-day manifest destiny, evident in everything from “We Are the World” to overzealous border guards. However, the essay adds little fresh insight to the issue, but merely recycles hoary complaints: that sportscasters refer to Super Bowl winners as world champions, for instance.

Stalking the Elephant’s central thesis is that America has become an old-style empire, defined by shameless self-interest and a might-makes-right mentality, more concerned with promoting its own international authority than with addressing internal social problems. Hardly a mindblowing proposition, but certainly well worth exploring. To do so, Laxer relies heavily on firsthand reportage from his own travels throughout the U.S. Occasionally the approach pays off. An account of a handgun class for beginners – one more concerned with the fine points of self-defence law than with safety – is chilling and fascinating.

Most of the other set pieces, however, fall flat. Even when the subject matter leans toward the sensational (militiamen, yahoo football fans, crowds at an execution), the author shows little flair for setting a vivid scene or uncovering a startling detail. Few readers will be surprised to learn, for example, that a Wyoming bookstore devotes an entire stand to gun magazines, or that chain restaurants are serving food in increasingly heaping quantities.

The book does passionately engage economic disparities and changing demographics within the U.S. And the brief but serviceable recaps of selected aspects of American history – like the Hatfield-McCoy feud – may interest newcomers to those subjects. But the authorial stance rarely moves beyond knee-jerk anti-Americanism, leaving the disturbing impression that the author travelled a country not to learn from what he saw, but merely to confirm his own preconceptions.