Thursday, September 5, 2013

The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid

The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt KidThe Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid by Bill Bryson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Author Bryson takes us on a humorous trip back into his own 1950s childhood in Des Moines, Iowa: the days of comic books and the Cold War, when Americans were happiest: an era rife with paranoia and optimism in equal measure.

Bryson has a gift for hyperbole paired with close observation that made me nostalgic for a period of American history that I never experienced. For example, a man diving doesn't simply bellyflop, he goes down like Wile E. Coyote:

"He hit the water—impacted really is the word for it—at over six hundred miles an hour, with a report so loud that it made birds fly out of trees up to three miles away. At such a speed water effectively becomes a solid. I don’t believe Mr. Milton penetrated it at all, but just bounced off it about fifteen feet, limbs suddenly very loose, and then lay on top of it, still, like an autumn leaf, spinning gently." - p. 78

Bryson has also done his homework on his own era: between anecdotes he quotes news articles, demographics, and facts about the frightening events of the fifties (the Cuban missile crisis, polio, nuclear testing), all filtered through the rosy lens of his own happily oblivious childhood. Young Billy in those days worried much more about his mother's terrible cooking, his father's habit of going half-naked to make a midnight snack (the wrong half), the irradiated toilet seats at his local diner, and the multitude of fascinating discomforts every child endures as a part of growing up.

Along the way he captures the paradoxical nature of the fifties, where Americans may have been in mortal danger of (self-inflicted) mass extinction but managed to stay cheerful and optimistic in a way that seems naive today. He attempts to tie it together with his own superheroic persona, "The Thunderbolt Kid," a metaphor that only works weakly to make the reader think of the heyday of comic books - but it's a small quibble in a fun and fluffy work. This isn't a deeply personal memoir - you won't feel as though you know the "real" Bill Bryson - but it is certainly entertaining and made me laugh aloud more than once.

As I read, I kept thinking of Bill Watterson's Calvin & Hobbes. Bryson has the same wry and affectionate attitude towards childhood, and the same sense of humor. For another funny memoir of childhood in the prosperous decades after WWII, try Haven Kimmel's A Girl Named Zippy. In Life and Times, Bryson also suggests a history of the era called God's Country: America in the Fifties by J. Ronald Oakley.

"I knew more things in the first ten years of my life than I believe I have known at any time since. I knew everything there was to know about our house for a start. I knew what was written on the undersides of tables and what the view was like from the tops of bookcases and wardrobes. I knew what was to be found at the back of every closet, which beds had the most dust balls beneath them, which ceilings the most interesting stains, where exactly the patterns in wallpaper repeated. I knew how to cross every room in the house without touching the floor, where my father kept his spare change and how much you could safely take without his noticing (one-seventh of the quarters, one-fifth of the nickels and dimes, as many of the pennies as you could carry). I knew how to relax in an armchair in more than one hundred positions and on the floor in approximately seventy-five more. I knew what the world looked like when viewed through a Jell-O lens. I knew how things tasted—damp washcloths, pencil ferrules, coins and buttons, almost anything made of plastic that was smaller than, say, a clock radio, mucus of every variety of course—in a way that I have more or less forgotten now. I knew and could take you at once to any illustration of naked women anywhere in our house, from a Rubens painting of fleshy chubbos in Masterpieces of World Painting to a cartoon by Peter Arno in the latest issue of The New Yorker to my father’s small private library of girlie magazines in a secret place known only to him, me, and 111 of my closest friends in his bedroom." - p. 36

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