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)
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!