April 26, 2011

The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid

The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid: A Memoir by Bill Bryson
Nonfiction – Memoir
2006 Random House Audio, Unabridged Edition
Read by the author
Finished on 4/13/11
Rating: 3.5/5 (Enjoyable)

Product Description

From one of the most beloved and bestselling authors in the English language, a vivid, nostalgic, and utterly hilarious memoir of growing up in the 1950s

Bill Bryson was born in the middle of the American century—1951—in the middle of the United States—Des Moines, Iowa—in the middle of the largest generation in American history—the baby boomers. As one of the best and funniest writers alive, he is perfectly positioned to mine his memories of a totally all-American childhood for 24-carat memoir gold. Like millions of his generational peers, Bill Bryson grew up with a rich fantasy life as a superhero. In his case, he ran around his house and neighborhood with an old football jersey with a thunderbolt on it and a towel about his neck that served as his cape, leaping tall buildings in a single bound and vanquishing awful evildoers (and morons)—in his head—as "The Thunderbolt Kid."

Using this persona as a springboard, Bill Bryson re-creates the life of his family and his native city in the 1950s in all its transcendent normality—a life at once completely familiar to us all and as far away and unreachable as another galaxy. It was, he reminds us, a happy time, when automobiles and televisions and appliances (not to mention nuclear weapons) grew larger and more numerous with each passing year, and DDT, cigarettes, and the fallout from atmospheric testing were considered harmless or even good for you. He brings us into the life of his loving but eccentric family, including affectionate portraits of his father, a gifted sportswriter for the local paper and dedicated practitioner of isometric exercises, and of his mother, whose job as the home furnishing editor for the same paper left her little time for practicing the domestic arts at home. The many readers of Bill Bryson’s earlier classic, A Walk in the Woods, will greet the reappearance in these pages of the immortal Stephen Katz, seen hijacking literally boxcar loads of beer. He is joined in the Bryson gallery of immortal characters by the demonically clever Willoughby brothers, who apply their scientific skills and can-do attitude to gleefully destructive ends.

Warm and laugh-out-loud funny, and full of his inimitable, pitch-perfect observations, The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid is as wondrous a book as Bill Bryson has ever written. It will enchant anyone who has ever been young.

Last summer I attended my 30th high school reunion. This year I’ll turn 50. So, maybe it’s no wonder that I’m beginning to look back on my youth with wistful longing for what seems from this vantage point a more simple and carefree time. I was born in 1961, but in spite of the age difference, I could certainly appreciate Bryson’s memoir describing growing up in the ‘50s.

I can’t imagine there has ever been a more gratifying time or place to be alive than America in the 1950s. No country had ever known such prosperity. When the war ended the United States had $26 billion worth of factories that hadn’t existed before the war, $140 billion in savings and war bonds just waiting to be spent, no bomb damage, and practically no competition. All that American companies had to do was stop making tanks and battleships and start making Buicks and Frigidaires—and boy did they.

No wonder people were happy. Suddenly they were able to have things they had never dreamed of having, and they couldn’t believe their luck. There was, too, a wonderful simplicity of desire. It was the last time that people would be thrilled to own a toaster or waffle iron. If you bought a major appliance, you invited the neighbors around to have a look at it.

America in 1951 had a population of 150 million, slightly more than half as much as today, no interstate highways, and only about a quarter as many cars. Men wore hats and ties almost everywhere. Women prepared every meal more or less from scratch. Milk came in bottles. The mailman came on foot. Total government spending was $50 billion a year, compared with $2.5 trillion now.

I Love Lucy made its television debut on October 15, and Roy Rogers, the singing cowboy, followed in December. In Oak Ridge, Tennessee, that autumn police seized a youth on suspicion of possessing narcotics when he was found with some suspicious brown powder, but he was released when it was shown that it was a new product called instant coffee. Also new, or not quite yet invented, were ballpoint pens, fast foods, TV dinners, electric can openers, shopping malls, freeways, supermarkets, suburban sprawl, domestic air-conditioning, power steering, automatic transmissions, contact lenses, credit cards, tape recorders, garbage disposals, dishwashers, long-playing records, portable record players, baseball teams west of St. Louis, and the hydrogen bomb. Microwave ovens were available, but weighed seven hundred pounds. Jet travel, Velcro, transistor radios, and computers smaller than a small building were all still some years off.

After reading one of Bryson’s books (A Walk in the Woods) and listening to this and one other (I'm a Stranger Here Myself), I have to say I prefer the audio books. He’s a delightful reader and I zipped through all six discs in no time. I found myself chuckling here and there, but I wouldn’t say that this book is laugh-out-loud funny. As a matter of fact, there were times when the narrative was actually pretty silly. The historical aspects of the memoir were informative and enlightening, but the tales of Bryson’s childhood superhero persona ("The Thunderbolt Kid") were distracting and seemed contrived.

Nostalgic, yet not overly sentimental, The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid is definitely a worthwhile read. Do yourself a favor, though, and listen to the audio. You’ll appreciate hearing Bryson narrate his own childhood vignettes and if you’re a Baby Boomer, more than likely you’ll find yourself nodding your head in agreement. I know I did, especially as I listened to him recall TV dinners, Dick & Jane books, and electric football, all of which I also remember, though dimly!


  1. I listen to all my non-fiction so this is perfect! Adding it to my Audible wish list!

  2. I loved this when I read it, and I did find myself laughing out loud and laughing until I cried, but I'm the same age as Bryson and spent time in Des Moines when I was a kid - many if his memories are my memories! I've only listened to a couple of his books on audio; I prefer the print version. For some reason, I don't care for his reading.

  3. I have always been interested in Bryson, but I have never really read him. I don't think his book on Shakespeare is a good representation of his overall work and that is all I have read by him... I have In a Sunburned Country on my immediate TBR pile and I think I have another book by him kicking around somewhere... Now I wish it was audio. The library just branched out in that area, but I can't get the program to work on my computer. :(

  4. I read this during my pre-blog days and I enjoyed it too. It made me really think about the way we've homogenized our country. Every town you go to is the same these days.

  5. Pam - Bryson is great to listen to! His travel essays are hilarious. Enjoy!

    Mrs. B. - I know a lot of people enjoyed this one better than I did and I suspect it has to do with being of the same general age as Bryson. Are you sure you don't know him? Des Moines wasn't that big in the early 50's, was it? :) You know, I like to listen to him read his books, but I can only listen for so long. He does get a bit tiresome after a while.

    Kailana - I would try one of his travel essays. Maybe I'm A Stranger Here Myself or Notes From a Small Island. My husband read In a Sunburned Country and said it was fabulous. I read an excerpt in National Geographic Traveler (I think!) and it was very funny.

    Kathy - You've got that right. I really dislike chain stores and restaurants. Give me a little boutique or quaint little restaurant any day!

  6. I also listened to it, 2 1/2 years ago, and I'm sad to say I don't recall a thing. I have a feeling that I enjoyed parts of it, as common memories. I'm so funny about Bryson - I've only really loved the Australia books. The others begin to bore me part way through. I do own two I haven't read yet, and which I have high hopes for:

    At Home, and one he edited, Icons of England.

  7. Nan - I wouldn't be surprised if I don't remember much about this book in another 2 years. Or even 2 months! Ha! :)

  8. Lesley! I forgot all about electric football! Where the little guys jiggled all over the board...and I loved TV dinners with their aluminum trays! and, you can't tell me that children didn't learn to read with Dick and Jane. I mean, look at us! Living proof of its effectiveness in producing life-long learners.

    I thoroughly enjoyed Bryson's A Walk In The Woods, and it's good to know you like his audio books best. I've never been so much of a listener, but I'll give that a try because he's such a great writer.

  9. My very favorite part of this was the description of Electric Football!! It was so dead on that I laughed so hard I cried, then I read that section to The Hubster and he just about lost it too.

    I don't remember much else about it though, other than it was pleasantly entertaining.

  10. Bellezza - I loved it when I had a babysitting job and the mom told me to help myself to a TV dinner. My favorite was the salisbury steak with mashed potatoes. I love mashed potatoes and gravy!

    I learned to read in Kindergarten while the other children were taking their naps. And, yes, I learned by reading Dick and Jane. I loved those books!

    Hope you had a lovely Mother's Day, dear friend.

    SuziQ - :) Yes, the electric football details were spot on and hilarious! Like you, though, I know I'll forget most of the details in the coming months. OK, who am I kidding. I've already forgotten most of the book! ;)

  11. This is one of the first books I reviewed on my blog over 3 years ago. I listened to it right after my father died and it was the perfect book for me at the time. I need some humor at the time.

    I'm not sure I would rate it as high as I did back then but I did enjoy the nostalgia and humor.

  12. Teddy Rose - It sounds like you made a good choice at the right time for a humorous audio book. One of these days I'll listen to his book about Australia. I hear that's his best!

  13. Les, this was my favorite Bryson book. The audio was fantastic. I think I could really relate to it because I am close in age to the author.

  14. Diane - I still plan to try a few more of Bryson's. The one about Australia sounds entertaining, as well as informative!

  15. I'm not an audio person but I love Bill Bryson so I'll have to keep your recommendation in mind for some time when I have a decent reason to listen to an audio. The excerpt brought back memories. My parents had an electric can opener that lasted nearly 3 decades. Oddly, we had one electric can opener at the beginning of our marriage and it died so quickly that we've used the old-fashioned crank kind, ever since! We've regressed! LOL

  16. Nancy - Yes, do keep this audio book in mind for a long drive/roadtrip. I think your hubby would enjoy it, too. We have an old-fashioned can opener, too. I've never liked (or figured out how to use!) the electric kind. :)


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