Friday, May 13, 2011

The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid

By Bill Bryson

New York, Broadway Books, 2006

268 pages Memoir

Writer and humorist, Bill Bryson was born in Des Moines Iowa in 1951. The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid is his homage to his normal, happy, Midwestern childhood. He mentions that according to the Gallop Poll, 1957 was the happiest year in American history. How they decided that, I have no way of knowing, but for Bryson and about “one hundred and eleven” of his closest friends, it was the best of times.

More than just a memoir, the book is filled with the historical trivia of the 1950s, the advent of “labor saving devices,” Jello, TV and TV dinners, erector sets and Lincoln Logs, Saturday matinees, vending machines, and amusement parks. Superman, Roy Rogers, Zorro, Sky King, and I Love Lucy. He also talks of rockets, Sputnik, the Communist threat, and bomb shelters. He tells of visiting downtown cafeterias, the tea room at Younkers Department Store and the girlie show at the State Fair. This is the stuff of a happy childhood, of running free and wild, of being “bored to death,” of being in a loving family, and of being part of the largest group of children ever in the history of the United States. In many ways, I felt I was reliving my own childhood as I visited Bryson’s Midwest childhood; so very much of it was the same.

My favorite story concerns the time he hit his head on a stone wall while playing football. With a head wound gushing blood, he runs home to find his father fondly looking at the bikini-clad woman from next door hanging clothes on the line. Startled out of his reverie by the gushing blood, his father calls the family doctor, aptly named Dr. Alzheimer. Dr. Alzheimer really doesn’t want to come over; he’s busy watching Ben Hogan play golf on television. He asks, “Tell me, is the little fellow still breathing?” “I think so,” my father replied. I nodded helpfully." Dr. Alzheimer’s advice is to nudge “the little fellow” every once in a while so that he wouldn't pass out.

Bryson says, “I knew more things in the first 10 years of my life than I believe I have known at any time since.... I knew the cool feel of linoleum on bare skin and what everything smelled like at floor level. I knew pain the way you know it when it is fresh and interesting — the pain, for example, of a toasted marshmallow in your mouth when its interior is roughly the temperature and consistency of magma. I knew exactly how clouds drifted on a July afternoon, what rain tasted like, how ladybugs preened and caterpillars rippled, what it felt like to sit inside a bush.”

The New York Times Reviewer says: “As a humorist, Bryson falls somewhere between the one-liner genius of Dave Barry and the narrative brilliance of David Sedaris. He’s not above sublime lowbrow fat and feces jokes, but at his best he spools out operatically funny vignettes of sustained absurdity that nevertheless remain grounded in universal experience.”

This is a book for everyone who grew up in the 1950s (and I would have to include myself and my siblings), or for anyone whose parents grew up in the 1950s, or for anyone who wants to have a good laugh. It is filled with gut-busting moments, because Bryson knows just how far to push the story until it verges on the absurd, and then he lets go of a whopper and settles back down. In the meantime, the reader finds herself laughing hysterically with tears streaming down her face.

My son posted a picture of his 10-year-old daughter on Facebook yesterday. My granddaughter is sitting in the car with a carefree smile on her face. He labeled the picture “Cecilia…just another happy day in kid land!” That is exactly how I felt reading this book. The Thunderbolt Kid—just another happy day in kid land. I can’t wait to share this book at book club next week. My bet is that everyone will have wonderful stories of childhood to tell.

Bill Bryson’s new book is called At Home: A Short History of Private Life. A couple of years ago, my husband and I read A Short History of Nearly Everything, which we just loved.

A review in the New York Times:

Bill Bryson’s Website:

An interview with Bryson about The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid:


Anonymous said...

I grew up in the '60's but my husband grew up in the 50's and this book looks like a delightful choice for both of us! Thanks for the great review and for inspiring a trip down memory lane :) Rae

Anonymous said...

and p.s.--love that artistic depiction of you on top of blog- the super cyber librarian!

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