My love affair with Bill Bryson began about a year ago when I discovered A Walk in the Woods. It made me laugh out loud more than any book I had read previously, and my husband resorted to asking me to please not read it in bed, at least after he fell asleep, because the constant giggling was just too much. Since then, I’ve recommended the book to almost everyone I know (and everyone who’s read it has liked it), and Mr. Bryson has earned a spot among my favorites.
The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid is Bryson’s memoir of his childhood in 1950s Iowa, when children knew how to amuse themselves without television and adolescent boys spent the better part of their years plotting ways to glimpse even one picture of a naked woman. Bryson devotes several pages to describing these pursuits, and they are both hilariously entertaining and touchingly nostalgic. Like contemporary memoirs by David Sedaris and Augusten Burroughs, among others, this memoir presents vignettes from Bryson’s young life rather than following the traditional linear narrative form of autobiography, and the snapshots come together to give us a wonderfully robust image of who he was and what life was like back then.
Of the countless laugh-out-loud moments in this book, my favorites included Bryson’s story of the day his mother sent him to school wearing his older sister’s very tight, very green capri pants; the time he and a friend peed on Lincoln Logs to bleach them white but allowed their teacher, who thought they’d used lemon juice, to lick them, declaring “I can taste the tartness;” and an episode in which a nosy teacher asked him, upon his request to use the restroom, whether he needed to go “number 1 or number 2,” to which Bryson, unfamiliar with these terms, responded, “Well, I don’t know…I need to do a big BM. It could be as much as a three or a four.” And all of that happens before his father walks downstairs, naked from the waist down, to get a midnight snack while his sister is entertaining friends. With stories like this and an entire chapter entitled “Sex and Other Distractions,” it’s impossible not to like this book.
Another remarkable feature is the depth and detail of Bryson’s research. He is quite a dilettante, in the best sense of the word, and his vignettes are consistently couched in facts that place them in the larger political and social context of the time. The stories become history lessons, as I suppose is inevitable when they are written by the author of A Short History of Nearly Everything.
My one complaint is that some material and information from a few of Bryson’s other books, namely Made in America and I’m A Stranger Here Myself,reappear in this one and give the reader a bit of literary deja vu. This is certainly understandable given the amount of research he has done over the years and the considerable overlap in subject matter, but I did find myself losing interest and skimming the familiar sections. If you’ve never read Bryson, though, this won’t be a problem for you, and this book would certainly be a great introduction to one of our best contemporary travel and memoir writers.
The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid earns a solid 4 out of 5 stars for its humor, wit, and accessability to readers of all ages. It kind of makes me wish Mr. Bryson could follow me around and turn my everyday experiences into clever, memorable moments. This book would make a perfect gift for anyone who grew up in the 50s in middle America and who longs for the good old days but is equally as good for those of us who just wish we’d been around to see America when life was simpler.