The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid: A Memoir

by Bill Bryson

Hardcover, 2006




Broadway Books, (2006)


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 funniest writers alive, he is perfectly positioned to mine his all-American childhood for 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 wearing a jersey with a thunderbolt on it and a towel about his neck, vanquishing evildoers--in his head--as "The Thunderbolt Kid." Using his fantasy-life persona as a springboard, Bryson re-creates the life of his family in the 1950s in all its transcendent normality--a life at once familiar to us all and as far away and unreachable as another galaxy.--From publisher description.… (more)

Media reviews

The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid by Bill Bryson is a memoir of growing up in Iowa, during the 1950's. The memoir was classic fun and an exploration into memories of growing up in the middle of America in the middle of the twentieth century. The book begins with a panoramic point of view on what the 1950's were about, and then Bryson gets closer and closer into his personal life. He masterfully pens his memories of pranks, jobs, candy, sex, politics, main-street, with a well crafted efficacy. So many memories of growing up in Longmont Colorado in the 1970's bubbled up. A fun listen.
2 more
Bill Bryson is erudite, irreverent, funny and exuberant, making the temptation to quote endlessly from The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid: A Memoir (Broadway, $25) hard to resist. Bryson interweaves childhood reminiscences seamlessly with observations about 1950s America, evoking a zeitgeist that will be familiar to almost everyone past middle age.
The Spectator
Had he written a purely personal view of his youth and left out the bits explaining how 1950s America was the best country in the world, my chuckles might not so often have given way to groans of annoyance.

User reviews

LibraryThing member auntieknickers
Bryson's memoir of growing up in the 50s in Des Moines, Iowa, is both humorous and bittersweet. Anyone who shared in this era as a kid will recognize some of the episodes, and yet this is also a very personal book. Bryson's childhood was different in some ways; for instance, his mother and father both worked for the local newspaper, so he had more freedom and fewer home-baked goodies than some of us. As usual though, I laughed out loud more than once while reading this book.… (more)
LibraryThing member Tudorrl
I bought this the day it came out and was beyond excitement to have a new Bill Bryson to read!!

Perhaps I expected too much...

I've read all his books and loved them - but for the first time I simply didn't engage with this one. It breaks my heart to say it but this is the first of his books that I shall probably not keep and re-read time and again.

It give me the odd chuckle and the scenes were well drawn etc but I was left with an overwhelming feeling of "So what".
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LibraryThing member rosalita
Here's how I rate Bill Bryson's books: One star for each embarrassing episode of inadvertent bursts of out-loud laughter in a public place. As you can see, I found The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid to be a thoroughly embarrassing read.

Bryson made his name as a travel humorist. (The first book of his that I read, Notes From a Small Island, also earned four snorts — I mean, stars.) That book documented his valedictory tour of Great Britain, where he had lived and worked as a journalist for a couple of decades, just before he brought his family back to his native United States. He also has documented his travels in Australia, the American Midwest, and a trek up the Appalachian Trail, all of which were reliably amusing if not entirely gut-busting. Along the way, Bryson also penned several books about the English language, Shakespeare, and the history of the modern house, bringing his trademark whimsy and fascination with the small details of history to each.

In The Thunderbolt Kid, Bryson looks back, chronicling his nearly idyllic childhood growing up in 1950s Des Moines, Iowa. Some of my friends find Bryson's humor to be occasionally mean-spirited, and it's true that he has a knack for skewering the least-attractive personality traits of some of the self-important blowhards he meets in his travels. Perhaps it's the softening effects of time, but there was relatively little savagery on display in Thunderbolt Kid. Oh, he still finds ways to point out the ridiculous aspects of some of his childhood nemeses, but the punches are pulled somewhat, leaving the reader with all of the humor and little of the discomfort.

I read a comment from another LibraryThing reader who speculated that only those who had grown up in 1950s America might appreciate The Thunderbolt Kid. I don't think that's true, necessarily; I grew up in the 1960s and 1970s but I still found much to enjoy in Bryson's memoir. I recommend this book to any fan of Bryson's or of coming-of-age stories, or anyone who enjoys having to apologize to the other riders on the city bus for bursting out in surprised guffaws while reading silently to oneself.
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LibraryThing member nbmars
Bill Bryson’s memoir of his Iowa childhood in the 1950’s and 60’s evokes the hyperbolic, but amusing, style of Dave Barry. The Thunderbolt Kid is Bryson’s alter ego super hero, who must navigate the turbid waters of growing up, albeit in a less complicated time and place than boys now face.

Bryson is especially astute in his description of Saturday matinees at the movies, the cultural impact of comic books and television, and a young man’s initial encounters with Playboy Magazine. He experienced many exotic adventures despite living in the epitome of normality. In fact, his anecdotes will remind you of episodes of Leave It To Beaver.

Bryson’s reminiscences about “electric football,” a popular game for boys, with its vibrating field and the frenetic, almost Brownian movement of the metal “football players” - a prototypical example of the kind of vignettes he includes - made me laugh out loud.

It is an easy, light read and, at 268 pages, is short enough to avoid becoming cloying. I recommend it especially for chronologically older boys who grew up in the fifties.
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LibraryThing member DeltaQueen50
An enjoyable walk down memory lane for me, The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid by Bill Bryson tells of his early years in Des Moines, Iowa in the 1950’s. Such a strange time, so many things to worry about - Communists, Atomic War, giant mutated bugs - and yet, as a whole such a happy time. The war was over, and North America got down to the business of making money, raising a family and driving cars.

In his usual humorous way, he walks us through his memories of childhood, giving us a few facts and figures along the way. His descriptions jogged my memory and overall, I enjoyed this book very much. A little repetitive at times, and I don’t know if people who didn’t live through the fifties would be able to relate to how simple and naïve we actually were.

This is my second Bill Bryson book, and I am eager to continue exploring this author’s writings. He is a master at entertaining and enlightening his readers. For me The Life and Time of the Thunderbolt Kid was a wonderful trip back to the fifties and a way of life that has disappeared.
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LibraryThing member mrtall
The first 100 pages or so of this memoir are magic. Bryson is at his very best -- warm, perceptive, and most of all very funny.

The problems start when he leaves his childhood behind and wanders into politics. Far too much of the remainder of the book is hijacked by his increasingly unsubtle digs at Republicans, conservatives, and especially anyone who thought the Soviet Union was anything other than a group of nice people in furry hats who happened to have a perfectly understandable taste for thermonuclear weapons. He even manages to work in a quotation from Howard Zinn, which shows how far he's stretching things.

Recommended, but with reservations. Bryson is an excellent writer, one of my favorites, but he'd be that much better if he could just rein in the politicking.
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LibraryThing member thebookbabe
It's a funny book (well, I did the audio CD), but there was something about the 1950s (and 1960s) that you just had to live through it to love and appreciate the period. I did. Bryson brought back such overwhelming memories of those gone forever innocent days. We're too sophisticated and jaded nowadays, I won't be around in another 30-40 years but I wonder if the Y2K generation will feel the same about their early years as we 'Boomers did about the 1950s. Bless you, Bill Bryson, for giving me something special: a honking good dose of nostalgia and longing for those good old days.… (more)
LibraryThing member MarysGirl
Finished this on my bicycle trip following the Erie Canal. It was fun, but not my favorite Bryson book. He's only six months older than I am and I grew up in the Midwest, so his stories were quite nostalgic for me. My main problem was with his overly snarky tone. I'm sure it was a style choice. This is a memoir of his childhood and, at that age, everyone else is stupid, but I found it a bit much. His tone was much more self-deprecating in "A Walk in the Woods" and - I felt - much funnier.… (more)
LibraryThing member alphawoolf
If you were a kid in the 1950's you can relate to this book. Bill has a way (as with all his books)of keeping it light, interesting and moving along. An enjoyable quick read.
LibraryThing member expat-bookworm
Bill Bryson’s The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid is subtitled "Travels Through My Childhood" on my copy of the British edition paperback. Halfway through reading this wonderfully humorous memoir, I realized that I was reading about my own childhood – great chunks of it at any rate. We moved around quite a bit when I was a youngster in the 1970’s, but the flatlands of West Texas, the cave-riddled hills of rural central Tennessee, and the suburbs of northeastern Kansas were virtually identical to Bryson’s own Des Moines of the 1950’s.

Never before have I read a book that evoked such clear memories of so many items that I’d completely forgotten about. Lincoln Logs, for instance, is a toy I haven’t thought of in many, many years (and, as a kid, I never knew that peeing on them would bleach the logs white). The following excerpts about NeHi soda pop provided not only a visual in my brain but resurrected the distinct taste in my mouth all the way to the salivatory stage:

NeHi was the pop of small towns – I don’t know why – and it had the intensest flavour and most vivid colours of any products yet cleared by the Food and Drug Administration for human consumption. It came in six select flavours – grape, strawberry, orange, cherry, lime-lemon (never ‘lemon-lime’) and root beer – but each was so potently flavoured that it made your eyes water like an untended sprinkler, and so sharply carbonated that it was like swallowing a thousand tiny razor blades. It was wonderful.

. . . (Grape was the one flavour that could actually make you hallucinate; I once saw the edge of the universe while drinking grape NeHi.)

Grape happened to me my favorite flavor of NeHi; I don’t recall ever seeing the root beer flavor but Kansas – my memories from the latter portion of my adolescence are the most vivid – was strictly A&W territory anyway with possibly the last A&W Root Beer Restaurant left in America at that time (it wasn’t until my first visit to Bangkok many years later that I discovered another outlet, astounded it had gone international).

A few pages later, Bryson discusses potluck dinners. This brought back distinct memories of attending various church or school social events featuring a large variety of enormous meatloafs and other strange foods, similarly "presided over by armies of immense, chuckling women who had arms and necks that sagged in an impossible manner, like really wet clothes." One or two of these socials occurred in the very 1950’s-like small town of Waterloo, Iowa, and Bryson’s descriptions of the tree-lined boulevards and old homes with the wraparound porches reminded me of a visit to my great aunt and uncle on the occasion of their 50th wedding anniversary in the late 1970’s or early 1980’s. This passage, among others, positively transported me back to a hot summer’s evening in Waterloo:

On the few nights when we weren’t at a church social, we had enormous meals at my grandparents’ house, often on a table carried out to the lawn. (It seemed important to people in those days to share dinner with as many insects as possible.) Uncle Dee would be there, of course, burping away, and Uncle Jack from Wapello, who was notable for never managing to finish a sentence.

I can almost hear the conversations of those distant relatives I’d never met before that trip, accompanied by my mom and a few select members of her side of the family (having flown to Kansas City from New Jersey and California for the drive up to Waterloo). Most of the whispering seemed to be about "Crazy Larry" – I believe he was my second- or third-cousin – who, supposedly, has been an agent for the CIA! Pretty heady stuff for a small-town teenager like myself. It might say something about the perceived "oddity" about the Iowa branch of the family that we only visited them once in all the years that we lived in Kansas, just four hours or so away…

This book is full of priceless gems. Take, for example, the passage on building plastic models – something I attempted numerous times in my own childhood, with often frustrating results:

At least candy gave actual pleasure. Most things that were supposed to be fun turned out not to be fun at all. Model making, for instance. Making models was reputed to be hugely enjoyable but it was really just a mysterious ordeal that you had to go through from time to time as part of the boyhood process. The model kids always looked fun, to be sure. . .

. . .But when you got the kit home and opened the box the contents turned out to be of a uniform leaden grey or olive green, consisting of perhaps sixty thousand tiny parts, some no larger than a proton, all attached in some organic, insperable way to plastic stalks like swizzle sticks. The tubes of glue by contrast were the size of large pastry tubes. No matter how gently you depressed them they would blurp out a pint or so of a clear viscous goo whose one instinct was to attach itself to some foreign object — a human finger, the living-room drapes, the fur of a passing animal — and become an infinitely long string.

Any attempt to break the string resulted in the creation of more strings. Within moments you would be attached to hundreds of sagging strands, all connected to something that had nothing to do with model aeroplanes or the Second World War. The only thing the glue wouldn’t stick to, interestingly, was a piece of plastic model; then it just became a slippery lubricant that allowed any two pieces of model to glide endlessly over each other, never drying. The upshot was that after about forty minutes of intensive but troubled endeavour you and your immediate surroundings were covered in a spider’s web of glue at the heart of which was a grey fuselage with one wing on upside down and a pilot accidentally but irremediably attached by his flying cap to the cockpit ceiling. Happily by this point you were so high on the glue that you didn’t give a shit about the pilot, the model or anything else.

Kid-oriented views about attending movie matinees, the evolution of comic books, and the space race made me want to read more about the cultural history of 1950’s America (and Bryson thoughtfully includes a bibliography to facilitate just that). The chapters relating to the testing of atomic bombs and the Communist scare (not to mention polio and bigotry) are downright frightening. But through it all, Bryson drives home the perception that Iowans – indeed most Americans – of at least the first seven years or so of the 1950’s were just downright happy people who didn’t seem to worry about much if anything at all.

The Thunderbolt Kid does end with a touch of sadness while, in a chapter entitled "Farewell," Bryson recounts how much Des Moines has changed in the forty years since his childhood – listing the many closures of businesses large and small; the death of the downtown is so familiar to anybody who grew up in any sized community in America over the past half-century or so.

I would have liked to have visited the Des Moines of Bryson’s youth. I’ve only known it as yet another faceless, sprawling city — one to pass through on the way to somewhere else. In fact, I only spent the night in Des Moines once – all of the hotel rooms in the nearby small town of Ames were booked during the night of a Paul McCartney concert at the Iowa State University’s Cyclone Stadium. I only recall congested interstate highways encircling the city (with the state capitol dome in the distance). The city seemed to be just another faceless sprawling city without either heart or soul. It certainly wasn’t a community that seemed inviting to explore. As Bryson so poignantly states in the penultimate paragraph, "We won’t see its like again, I’m afraid."

The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid was interesting to me as it presented several firsts for me, something that doesn’t happen too often to this lifelong reader. One one thing, this was the first book (at least in quite a long while) that has provoked such longing to those simple days of my childhood, a period in my life that I rarely think about. It’s also the first memoir that I recall truly enjoying – I tend to stick to fiction or travelogues. For the first time since I was a student (and that’s a great many years), I found myself eagerly jotting down notes and quotes as I read. If you’ve read my “About Me,” you’ll know that I greatly disliked writing book reports while in school (such a shocking thing for a reading teacher to admit!) and that has carried over to my adult life as someone who doesn’t write reviews of what he has read. Well, that all has changed with Bryson’s memoir as this is my first-ever book review. I hope you’ve enjoyed reading it as much as I know you will enjoy reading The Thunderbolt Kid.
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LibraryThing member VivienneR
This is Bryson's nostalgic memoir of growing up in the 1950s in Iowa. He uses factual information enhanced with his own memories. I laughed out loud many times, was helpless with laughter a number of times. I sympathized, empathized, agreed, cheered, or took a shocked intake of breath as young Billy's story progressed. Although anyone who grew up in the same era might get a special enjoyment in revisiting their youth, it is not limited to a specific generation or gender; anyone can enjoy this story. And I thoroughly enjoyed it.

This was an audiobook with an excellent narration by the author and included a short interview at the conclusion. Count me in as a fan.
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LibraryThing member bookgal123
This is a funny, insightful look into life in the Midwest in the 1950's. Bryson reads his own prose, and his dry delivery only adds to the charm. I can also highly recommend the format.
LibraryThing member midlevelbureaucrat
On my first night with Bill Bryson's The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid, my wife asked in a bothered tone while trying to fall asleep next to me, why the bed was vibrating. This is a fun, grin-out-loud journey through Bryson's Des Moines childhood. It generates the chuckle that starts low in the belly and builds with each sentence 'til you can't help but laugh out loud or jiggle the bed as you vainly try to hold it in.

Thunderbold Kid recreates through his admittedly biased and favorable memories, the simpler and happier days of the bucolic American 1950s. Though I follow Bryson on the planet by exactly a decade (my parents were teens in the 50s and parents in the 60-70s, mostly missing the youthful upheaval of those turbulent times) there is much here that feels familiar: The joys of patrolling downtown without parents and without fear. Being dropped at the local summers-only amusement park, and told not to return 'til dinner time. Of parents who worked at some vaguely known task during the day to return to us sometime in the late afternoons. Of the fascination with seeing your first naked female.

I suspect Bryson's memory will ring truer for guys than for girls. The joys of blowing things up, of hanging louies in enclosed spaces, of seeking and usually just missing out on your first peak of a real live girl's boobs.

But everyone will enjoy Bryson's lively and fun writing in this quick and easy book. It will leave you smiling, and wondering why life can't be as simply happy now as it was when we were 10.
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LibraryThing member campingmomma
What can I say.... another terrifically funny, engaging memoir from Mr. Bryson. Lots of funny stories from his childhood in Des Moines, IA. I can't even sum up this book as there are so many stories, but I will say it was the perfect selection when I went looking for something easy on the memory (not a lot of intense characters or plot to remember), light hearted, and very funny. Did I tell you how funny it was?!… (more)
LibraryThing member dancingstarfish
Funny and well worth reading, I enjoyed his idealistic sunny & humorous childhood.
LibraryThing member Fips
This was definitely a case of judging a book by its cover. Although I've devoured a number of Bryson's other books, the title and topic of this one just didn't appeal to me. But when a thumbed copy turned up in my household, I decided to have a read of the first couple of pages, and found myself only putting it down again half-way through.

Part-memoir, part-history of a mid-western US state in the 1950s, The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid is a humourous look at Bryson's early life growing up in Des Moines, Iowa. There are dozens of amusing anecdotes about the vagaries of his family, his school and home life, his holidays, and his unending quest to catch a bit of 'female epidermis' in the flesh. The memories of his own life are interspersed with more general comments on the changes going on in America, with talk of economic growth, changing social mores, anti-Communist witchhunts, racism and the space race. Certainly, some of the things Bryson mentions happens before he was born, or the changes run on long in the 1960s, but it's still interesting to see a take on life in this baby boomer generation. Whilst there's a lot here that's surely unique to the America of the 50s, there's enough that is so simplistically human that I think most people will find passages reminiscent of their own trials and tribulations of youth. Ironically, despite being born a few decades later, I felt that a lot of the developments Bryson talks about in 1950s American society were the same ones I experienced as a child in rural England!

All of this is delivered in Bryson's typical affable and humourous style, which if you're a fan, you're sure to lap up. Some readers have quite justifiably complained that Bryson's reliance on hyperbole and silliness to sweeten his anecdotes is a bit tiring, and makes it at times difficult to separate truth from fiction, but that's simply his style. I've always been inclined to link Bryson with Wodehouse in the way he wrote slapstick humour, and felt vindicated to read that he had readily gobbled up Wodehouse as a child. For me, this is classic Bryson. Some have pointed out that Bryson's labelling as a travel writer is going to have change with the latest additions to his oeuvre. But for me, he never was a travel writer, but a writer who travelled. After all, anyone attempting to travel across a continent armed only with the appropriate Bryson volume was merely arming themselves for a few giggly embarrassing moments on public transportation, nothing more. There are certainly enough laugh-out-loud moments here, and plenty of smiles in between, that you wonder sometimes it doesn't come with a warning sticker on the front.

That said, one criticism that I must agree with is the book's design. There are quite a few pictures in the book, including some family photos, which are sadly captionless and only breezily explained in the footnotes at the back. The typeset is rather widely spaced, which whilst making it easier on the eyes, is just an excuse at padding. There's also a preview chapter from Neither Here nor There: Travels in Europe taking up space at the back, which makes this book, despite its heightened page count, one of Bryson's shorter volumes.

Ultimately, this is a book for established Bryson fans. It isn't as well written as the best of his travelogues, and in terms of being informative, there isn't much here that isn't already widely known, but for a bit of light, nostalgic reading that is sure to put a smile on your face, it easily fits the bill.
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LibraryThing member brysoncrichton
bryson is just a great author. I am a child of the 70s. This book is really for the children of the 60s. Even so I just love the way he writes.
LibraryThing member lkrier
Bill Bryson is one of my very favorite humorists. His books are always laugh-out-loud-on-the-subway funny and his perspective on American culture and recent history always gibe pretty closely with mine. His nostalgia for a previous era isn't of the whiney, grumpy old man variety, but is instead a clear-eyed examination of some of the things we've lost (and some of things we're probably better off without).

Though Bryson interjects his personal histories and memories into all of his books, this is his first real memoir. But it's so much more than just a memoir. Ever the journalist, Bryson includes tons of interesting details about life in the 1950s in general, and always in the hilarious, just slightly cynical style that makes me love every book he writes.

While "The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid" didn't make me laugh quite as hard as "The Lost Continent" or "A Walk in the Woods," it had plenty of unforgettable, giggle-inducing moments, and I suspect it will find its way off the bookshelf multiple times in its life.
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LibraryThing member bobbilee
What a cute memoir of growing up in the mid-west during the 1950s.
LibraryThing member readabook66
An enjoyable history of a 1950's childhood and adolescence.
March 2007
LibraryThing member sschriefer
Just finished this very funny memoir...Don't know if I enjoyed it so much because I also grew up in the 50's and early 60's. Bill Bryson is hillarious!
LibraryThing member leadmomma
Like so many of Bryson's books - you have to laugh, outloud for sure. If you haven't had a chance, listen to one of his books on tape -- because once you do that - you will hear that voice as you read anything else by him, and somehow that makes the book so much richer.
LibraryThing member fantasmogirl
Bryson's latest had me laughing from start to finish. Having grown up in Iowa, albeit two decades after him, I could relate to some of the homespun ideology that he carried through the entire book. Bryson has a way of making some of the most standard actions of children about as funny as they can possibly be.
LibraryThing member trav
I'm a HUGE fan of Bill Bryson and remain so, even if this latest offering left me wanting.
It may just be a generational-type thing. I'm sure someone Bryson's age, who witnessed the same things, would enjoy this book much more than I did.
Though after all the Bryson books I've read, it was neat to read about his mom and dad and to trace the steps that made him into the writer he is today.
Don't get me wrong, there are pages where Bryson sticks his trademark laugh-out-loud quips and observations, but it just didn't have the engaging stories that so many of his other books have.
If you've read Bryson book or two, then pick this one up, you'll find the parts you want.
But if you're looking to pick up your first Bill Bryson title, start with another.
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LibraryThing member 5hrdrive
Wonderful. Laughed so hard I think I ruptured my spleen. My mother is from Des Moines, although unfortunately twenty years older than Bryson, but I can't wait to ask her about Younkers and Dahl's and atomic toilets and the Des Moines theater and the Register building with its globe, and the elm trees. And North High, which she attended.… (more)


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