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.
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".
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.