Thursday, June 30, 2011

The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid

by Bill Bryson

A memoir of the humor and travel writer’s childhood and adolescence in Des Moines, Iowa in the ‘50s, which he characterizes as an era of material comfort, production, consumption, happiness, endearing naïveté, embrace of changes the future would bring, and a general carefree attitude.  (The title comes from a super-hero fantasy he indulged in as a child.)  Lingering with affectionate nostalgia over the baseball parks, unique mom and pop shops and department stores, childhood games, and newspaper routes of his youth, he mostly takes the wistful tone of the man who thinks the world has been going downhill ever since he personally left school.  He does touch on some of the bleaker aspects of the decade, such as the lax attitude toward dangerous substances, the cold war, nuclear proliferation, a fascistic and pharisaical tendency toward censorship in the government, and some very ugly racism – but as a child in a nearly totally Methodist, white middle-class neighborhood, these did not touch him.  Indeed, he characterizes himself as a perspicacious child (though a very poor student) who, for example, saw immediately that the ludicrous duck-and-cover drill would not save him from nuclear explosions, so chose to ignore them.

Normally I am wary of memoirs by people who have not lived especially interesting lives (and everyone seems to think their own childhood, with its same cruel kids’ games and wide-eyed wonder as everyone else’s, deserves a book).  I would probably not have read this book, despite having read and enjoyed others by Bryson, if it weren’t part of a project in which others choose books for me to read.  As it is, Bryson more than justifies the innate arrogance of the memoir.  For one thing, he is supremely funny: some passages had me uncontrollably laughing, literally until tears streamed down my face.  While wit and an amusing turn of phrase are common enough, outside of Wodehouse and Adams it’s the rare writer who can cause actual bouts of laughter.  Second, underneath the bright nostalgia is a very real lesson: that what was arguably one of America’s happiest periods coincided with an open mind to scientific advancement, self-sustaining manufacturing and farming, and local entrepreneurship flourishing before the rise of faceless and flavorless monolithic corporations.  Truly an era that is gone. 

four stars

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