The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid by Bill Bryson

April 12, 2013

Summary (from the publisher): 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 best and funniest writers alive, he is perfectly positioned to mine his memories of a totally all-American childhood for 24-carat 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 with an old football jersey with a thunderbolt on it and a towel about his neck that served as his cape, leaping tall buildings in a single bound and vanquishing awful evildoers (and morons)—in his head—as “The Thunderbolt Kid.”

Using this persona as a springboard, Bill Bryson re-creates the life of his family and his native city in the 1950s in all its transcendent normality—a life at once completely familiar to us all and as far away and unreachable as another galaxy. It was, he reminds us, a happy time, when automobiles and televisions and appliances (not to mention nuclear weapons) grew larger and more numerous with each passing year, and DDT, cigarettes, and the fallout from atmospheric testing were considered harmless or even good for you. He brings us into the life of his loving but eccentric family, including affectionate portraits of his father, a gifted sportswriter for the local paper and dedicated practitioner of isometric exercises, and OF his mother, whose job as the home furnishing editor for the same paper left her little time for practicing the domestic arts at home. The many readers of Bill Bryson’s earlier classic, A Walk in the Woods, will greet the reappearance in these pages of the immortal Stephen Katz, seen hijacking literally boxcar loads of beer. He is joined in the Bryson gallery of immortal characters by the demonically clever Willoughby brothers, who apply their scientific skills and can-do attitude to gleefully destructive ends.

Warm and laugh-out-loud funny, and full of his inimitable, pitch-perfect observations, The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid is as wondrous a book as Bill Bryson has ever written. It will enchant anyone who has ever been young.

Reaction:

I usually love Bill Bryson, but felt that something was off in this book. Sure, the familiar writing style shines through and there are several laugh-out-loud lines scattered throughout the pages, but Thunderbolt Kid simply didn’t have the same flow or cohesiveness and Bryson’s other works.

In reading other reviews, I learned that many fans agreed with me. One popular opinion was that Bryson was trying too hard for laughs and kind of lost his way at times. I think this is as good an explanation as any, because the prose certainly wasn’t as tight as I’ve come to expect from the author.

Anyway, even though Bryson was born more than two decades before me, I could still identify with many of the experiences he wrote about in this book. I especially liked his descriptions of home life, and how a kid knows every inch of a house and what’s inside every drawer, closet, or cupboard due to having nothing else to do on long summer days except explore. I was the exact same way as a child of the early ’80s, and clearly remember spending hours sifting through the junk in my basement or attic. I knew the whereabouts of things that my parents didn’t even realize they still had, and could find anything in a flash. Like if my dad needed one of his rarely used USDA approved levelers, he’d just ask me to go get it instead of trying to find it himself.

I also liked reading about Bryson’s school days and how he wasn’t exactly a brilliant scholar (or even regular attendee). It just goes to show that the course of your life isn’t permanently set by what you achieve (or fail to achieve) in high school. Not every success story plays out in exactly the same predictable way.

Of the things I disliked, the most prominent was the lack of insight into Bryson’s family life. He talked most about his father, a famous baseball writer in his own right, and a bit about his absent-minded but well-meaning mother. Yet his siblings remained shadowy figures throughout (even now I can’t quite recall how many he had). This might have been due to the age difference between “Billy” and his brothers and sisters, but still… you’d think a childhood memoir would include more details about his home life and family.

Rating:

As I said above, I usually love Bill Bryson’s books. However, The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid left me disappointed. It was still entertaining in places, but didn’t have the usual Bryson charm to carry me through joyously from beginning to end. Some sections were a chore to read, which should never be the case with this author. I give the book 3 stars out of 5.

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