The phrase "Marxist literary critic" is not generally found in close quarters with "laugh riot" (although there are unconfirmed rumours that Georg Lukács was quite the card at parties). British academic Terry Eagleton is best known for his one-volume introduction to literary theory, but with Across the Pond, he is likely to reach an audience unable to distinguish Walter Benjamin from Benjamin Button. Eagleton, who taught in the United States for decades and is married to an American, interrogates the differences - linguistic, stylistic and moral - that separate Americans from their British and Irish cousins.
Pleasantly acerbic, Eagleton uses national stereotypes to peek at the blind spots and cultural anomalies peculiar to each country. Brits insist that, while marmalade may be consumed at breakfast, jam and, heaven forfend, jelly, are strictly verboten. Americans insist that "feeling good about yourself is a sacred duty, like placing your hand on your heart at certain patriotic moments". And the Irish "are shaped by the fact that for many centuries, the justice system in their country was not their own but a colonial imposition. This is an excellent excuse for parking your car in someone's front garden." Americans insist on describing anything and everything as "awesome", and so greatly prefer taking photos to actually touring foreign countries that Eagleton suggests sending only their cameras to tourist offices abroad, where pictures could be taken for a small fee.
He is also interested in the mutual incomprehension the English-speaking nations bear towards each other. "In fact," Eagleton says, referring to the former US president's tendency to mangle multi-syllable words, "the public speeches of George W Bush seemed to many of the British to be constantly warning against the evils of tourism". Eagleton, appalled by smoking bans and the American insistence on waking up at ungodly hours of the morning, is wildly amusing in - stereotype alert - what Americans think of as the dry British tradition.
Style is conjoined to substance in Across the Pond, precisely as Eagleton would have us all insist on the best of both. But the platitudes we murmur to each other have a deeper meaning, as any literary critic would insist, and Americans, in Eagleton's reckoning, still have some growing up to do, particularly in their insistence on denying the finality of death: "Americans are indeed superb at problem-solving. They are resourceful, ingenious, inventive and constructive. It is just that you can be all these excellent things without suppressing the truth that all human beings finally come to utter ruin."
Speaking of the American denial of death, Ministry lead singer and mastermind Al Jourgensen reports back from a two-decade-long drug-and-alcohol bender rivalling the most debauched antics of Led Zeppelin and Mötley Crüe in his autobiography Ministry: The Lost Gospels According to Al Jourgensen, cowritten with Jon Wiederhorn. As he says, "If you remember the nineties, you weren't there." Jourgensen, born Alejandro Ramirez Casas in Havana in 1958, translated the whitebread anomie of life in suburban Chicago into a musical career, first as a featherweight neo-disco pop singer, and then as the inventor of the punishing part-metal, part-electronic musical hybrid known as industrial.
Jourgensen, who cattily dismisses his disapproving fellow band members as "the Book Club", is more interested in the two years he spent living with Timothy Leary, serving as an unpaid guinea pig for Leary's drug experiments, or the time he told William S Burroughs to feed methadone wafers to some pesky raccoons in order to slow them down enough to shoot them. By the end of his drug-haze days, Jourgensen's 160-kilogram tour manager would unroll an Oriental rug in whatever bar he happened to be in, roll the star up inside it, and lug him back to the tour bus.