Friday, April 2, 2010

The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid

B and Jules: My apologies for yet another book review ..... :)

There is no doubt that Bill Bryson is a funny dude. His Walk in the Woods' work, part travel book, part memoir, part "hug a tree," and part history, has sections that made me laugh out loud. In this autobiographical piece, Bill and his childhood friend hike the Appalachian trail together and meet all kinds of people, mostly good, but some he and his buddy met were -- well, they were weirder than crop circles. He did a great job balancing the humor with the historical and more serious aspects of the work.

The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid immortalizes Bryson's 1950s upbringing in Des Moines, Iowa, son of two newspapermen -- his father a sports writer, his mother, a feature editor.

Born in 1951, Bryson uses this year as his starting place, but rewinds to times before his birth, as well as fast forwarding it to the 1960s.

As he introduces his memoir, he humorously relates, "My kid days were pretty good ones, on the whole. My parents were patient and kind and approximately normal. They didn't chain me in the cellar. They didn't call me "It." I was born a boy and allowed to stay that way. My mother, as you'll see, sent me to school once in Capri pants, but otherwise there was little trauma in my upbringing."

The third of three, Bryson hardly mentions his siblings but details his parents, his neighbors, his teachers, and his friends in this riotous recreation of what it was like to grow up in the 1950s. He calls it a simpler time, and he pays a great deal of attention to making sure that he maintains that premise, even while mentioning that at times when America should have been frightened, like the Bay of Pigs, a kid like him was not. That is -- the beauty of an innocent childhood.

Bryson reiterates that innocence over and over.... and he believed that 1959 was a changing year.

At his best in this memoir is his writing about his friends and their families. One such family err on the side of boring; he tells his mother that he can't believe that she arranged for him to agree to a sleepover: "On the one previous occasion on which I had experienced their hospitality, a slumber party of which it turned out I was the only guest, or possibly the only invitee who showed up, Mrs. Milton had made me -- I'll just repeat that: made me - eat chipped beef on toast, a dish closely modeled on vomit, and then sent us to bed at 8:30 after Milton passed out [yes, his name was Milton Milton] halfway through I Got a Secret, exhausted after sixteen hours of pretending to be a steam shovel."

LOL -- this is Bryson's forte -- he takes the childhood experience, and ones like these are almost universal, and turns them into hilarious, and of course, exaggerated experiences.

Mixed in with his childhood memories are facts about the time: "In 1951, Harry Truman was president, but would shortly make way for Dwight D. Eisenhower. The war in Korea was in full swing and not going well. Julius and Ethel Rosenberg had just been convicted of spying for the Soviet Union, but would sit in prison for two years more before being taken to the electric chair. In Topeka, Kansas, a mild-mannered...."

Even though he peppered his memoirs with facts like that, he also colors it with his modern day disdain for the Republican party and George W. Bush. I would come across this passages and think, "Just shut up and write."

I like Bryson, but occasionally, his smug pontificating borders on my imagining him imagining his readers nodding at how smart he was to drag in his current political views, but to me, his smirking, sanctimonious comments about the current political climate are arrogance, and perhaps out of place?

Or maybe....

Call me "not in the mood."

Bryson is funny -- at times uproariously so -- especially when he so aptly put his childhood spin on it -- his passages about comic books, his relatives, laying out of school, his friends are slap the knees hilarious -- but when he starts being condescending, not so much.

This is a book for baby boomers ---- even with the agenda -- for Bryson reminds us all that "childhood passes quickly -- but ... adult hood .... is over in a twinkling."


  1. Should I read it this summer? I love Bryson, but I'm so sick and tired of all of the political squabbling!

  2. I love it when you write about your childhood. I also love your book reviews. Keep reading!

  3. I actually bought this book for you a few years ago, then found something I wanted to give you more so I saved it and now I don't know where it is! LOL

  4. I am catching up on reading your blog. Sorry I have been away as a loyal reader!

    I listened this as audio book. Bryson narrates it himself. It was a pretty good audio because he has been growing up in England so he has developed an accent between Mid-West and English gentlemen which would explain his disdain for President Bush.

    I actually liked the book and don't recall any of the bad points you mentioned. I had picked it up on a whim one day at lunch while visiting a branch of the library.

    I listened to it about a year ago. I don't recall anything specific that I found funny but I loved him talking about his family. The book made me go back and think about my own childhood.