The 1950s in America can often be viewed through a monochromatic lens, catching only the bad things that happened. Now, I’m certainly not a fan of women delegated only to the kitchen and racial segregation, and I wouldn’t want to defend an America that featured a witch hunt of anyone who may have touched a communist in their life. But we should be careful not to relegate an entire era to the dustbin because of the most popular themes that emerged from that time. This is part of what I learned while reading Bill Bryson’s autobiographical essays in The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid. Bill Bryson’s writing has not failed to charm me yet, though I was at first hesitant to begin reading his books. I think I saw him on The Colbert Report once and his interview was a little dry, so I assumed his writing would be boring. But I’ve been wrong so far because The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid sparkles with humor and descriptions that leap off the page.
In fact, Bryson’s book may have you laughing even before you open it. I mean, the Thunderbolt Kid? What could he possibly be talking about? Well, it turns out that Bryson was brought to Earth as a baby from his far off home planet and placed with an innocuous Midwestern family. But he knows his true identity as the Thunderbolt Kid and quickly realizes his super power of disintegrating his foes. His chief foes are usually adults who give him dolls for Christmas, accidentally drink out of his water glass at a restaurant, or commit some other hideous crime of nature. All of this is said, of course, with generous tongue-in-cheek, but it serves to put readers in the mind of Bryson as a child and, indeed, all children who imagine themselves to be someone more interesting.
Through a series of chapters, which could function as standalone essays, Bill Bryson tells us about his childhood in Iowa in the 1950s. What becomes apparent very quickly is that Bryson did not experience the sterilized childhood of the 1950s that we might see on an episode of Leave it to Beaver. Rather, this account is one that is true to life and a lot of the familial connections and friendships are similar to ones you might have today. This is largely what attracted me to the book as I began to read it – you’re able to relate to Bryson and the real-life characters surrounding him. These people are not television characters and while they may do some zany things, Bryson’s book is very realistic in that it documents the bad with the good.
In addition to being realistic and easy to relate to, Bryson’s writing pokes fun at the time in which he lived and at some things that happened to him while he was a kid. What sometimes leads to sappy, overly sentimental writing is being unwilling to laugh at one’s past. Bryson, conversely, knows full well that his mother’s inept cooking skills, his cadre of friends in “Kid World,” and some of the foibles of the society in which he lived are quite laughable. Some of the highlights include the extent to which smoking was advertised and lauded as beneficial to your health, and the incredibly dull nature of children’s toys in the 1950s. The passage on model kits nearly made me laugh out loud and frighten my fellow train passengers.
That’s not to say there are not touching moments in this book, as well. In one chapter, Bryson describes at length an evening ritual he and his mother would sometimes take part in after she got off work. As a treat, Bryson’s mother would take him to a fancy restaurant in downtown Des Moines and then to a film at the local cinema after he got home from school. Lovingly, Bryson paints us a picture of the Des Moines of his childhood and how it was a shining beacon of excitement for someone of his age. At one point, Bryson tells us that he would enter the building of The Des Moines Register, find the floor where his mother worked, and round the corner to find her typing away at her typewriter. Bryson says he’d give anything to walk through the women’s department of the newspaper and see his mother there again, just as she always was.
Bryson also has much to say about his father, praising him as the best sports writer in the country. One of my favorite passages compares Bryson’s father’s account of the 1960 World Series with an account of the same baseball game from The New York Times. Readers will have to admit that Bryson is not just overly proud of his father; his father really was a spectacular sports writer.
The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid is touching, humorous, and observant about the world Bryson grew up in. If you’ve read Bryson before, you’ll want to pick up this book to complete or continue your collection. If you and Mr. Bryson have not yet been introduced as reader and writer, I recommend grabbing the account of the Thunderbolt Kid’s antics and beginning a trek through his bibliography.