AMERICANS

The View From Abroad

By James C. Simmons

Harmony Books. 240 pp. $19.95

It's always a pity when an author has a good idea for a book -- in this instance, the author generously gives his agent credit for the good idea -- and then for one reason or another fails to fulfill all its possibilities. This is the case with "Americans: The View From Abroad," which proposes to let us see ourselves as others see us, but draws on such a narrow range of foreign viewpoints, and directs them to such a peculiar selection of American subjects, that in the end its frustrations are greater than its rewards.

James C. Simmons, the author of several books on a variety of subjects, believes that "personal observations by foreign observers" can suggest answers to "such important issues as: What is an American? What is American about the American experience? And what has happened to the American Dream?" He correctly notes that outsiders can often penetrate to truths about alien cultures that escape the notice of those cultures' inhabitants, and that over the years the United States has attracted numerous foreign visitors whose comments about the new-found land have been articulate and perceptive.

In his researches, which focused on books and articles published in the 1980s, Simmons came across a number of such comments. A Canadian journalist writes about a doctor in Toronto whose book, "How to Cope With Back Pain," is published in the United States as "How to Conquer Back Pain." The writer notes: "That is the difference. Canadians cope. Americans conquer... . Americans have an unlimited belief that anything is possible and anyone can rise to the top."

A bit later, though, a Hungarian composer turns the point on its head: "American society, based as it is on self-interest and profit, educates selfish and individualist people. But the world needs cultivated, public-spirited men if we are to survive the catastrophe brought on us by greed, stupidity and irresponsibility. Money as a measure of value, giant motorization, a life-style that destroys Nature -- all of that make it inconceivable for me to want to live there. The big cities especially are a nightmare for me. America wants an import of oxygen."

Each writer is, in his own way, right, which suggests among other things the diversity of American culture and the difficulty of making ultimate pronouncements about it. Frequently a perceptive observation is interesting at first glance, yet diminished when not taken to its logical conclusion: Visitors who note the near-fanatical cleanliness of American packaging fail to note that it ends up littering our sidewalks and roadways, testimony to our obsession with sanitization on the one hand and our lazy carelessness on the other.

Other observations are interesting if not unduly original. Much is made, as well it should be, of the sheer vastness of the country; we Americans take it for granted, but tourists from the cramped confines of other lands are left breathless by it. A woman from the Soviet Union found something else at which to marvel: "The most amazing thing was the profusion of color. Color, color everywhere. Things looked pretty. Soviet life is essentially colorless."

All of which makes for pleasant reading as far as it goes, but it doesn't go far enough. The first half of the book produces many useful insights into the American character, but the second bogs down in specifics: comments on particular cities and political figures that are of passing interest at best. More than that, Simmons's selections are highly arbitrary: Yes, Hollywood and Los Angeles merit extended commentary, but why not a single word -- pardon the provincialism -- about the nation's capital? After all, isn't Washington the one city to which almost all visitors come and which produces some of their most direct encounters with American history and character?

This omission reflects the book's second difficulty. On the evidence of his bibliography, Simmons was pretty much content to sit back in San Diego, where he lives, and let the word from abroad come to him. This meant a heavy dependence on the San Diego newspaper, which is fine as far as it goes but is hardly the only source -- indeed, dare I say probably is not the best or most complete source? -- of foreign commentary. Add to that his penchant for drawing repeatedly on a handful of books that are not invariably as interesting as Simmons believes them to be, and you end up with an erratic collection that is anything except the omnium-gatherum its subtitle promises.