Click here to read reviewer Tanya Boudreau's take on The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid.
Bill Bryson has been around as an acclaimed author for some years now, although he’s (somewhat dubiously) typecast as a “travel writer.” He has written about hiking the length of the Appalachian Trail in the eastern USA, living and traveling as an American in England, and traveling through Australia (Walk in the Woods, Notes from a Small Island and In a Sunburned Country, respectively). But despite all the travel-based repertoire, he’s not only a travel writer—Bryson has written several engaging books on the English language and its oddities, as well as 2004’s award-winning A Short History of Nearly Everything, a hilarious and thought-provoking foray into the world of science.
Bryson’s most recent book, The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid, is a memoir of growing up in Des Moines, Iowa in the 1950s. The book is a detailed description of a very particular time and place and, at the same time, a rambling journey through the comedy of childhood:
“The makers of sneakers also thoughtfully pocked the soles with numberless crevices, craters, chevrons, mazes, crop circles, and other rubbery hieroglyphs, so that when you stepped in a moist pile of dog shit, as you most assuredly did within three bounds of leaving the house, they provided additional absorbing hours of pastime while you cleaned them out with a stick, gagging quietly but oddly content.”
The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid takes you back to the simple fascination of being young. And it also takes you back—somewhat guiltily—to the days when nothing was sacred. His writing is clear and vivid, whether he discusses the strippers’ tent at the Iowa State Fair or the madness of the Cold War.
Bryson is an American who married an Englishwoman and has lived in England for many years. While he says his loyalties probably now lie with the UK more than any other country, he still harbors a love for his homeland, a fondness that is evident in the wistful tone of the book. “America’s where I come from so I have a natural and instinctive attachment to it,” he says:
“It’s where my earliest memories all were and where my family history is. But there’s a lot of things about America, particularly American imperialism, that are not very attractive. [Like] America’s attitudes to things like the Cold War.”
This childhood memoir recalls not only the amazing advancements in technology and personal lifestyle in America in the 1950s—including some of the more bizarre experiments, such as “rocket mail”—but also the manic development, introspection and cultivation of fear that his country of birth propagated during events like the Cold War.
“The stuff that really amazed me [when researching the book],” he continues, “was Edward Teller, head of the Atomic Energy Agency, [who had] these ideas of blowing up the Great Barrier Reef with atomic bombs or lobbing bombs at the moon so the people on earth could enjoy the spectacle.” But although he decries certain attitudes and acts, Bryson admits a soft spot for the Des Moines of his past—and now he has the keys to the city, given to him by the mayor on a book tour to promote this memoir.
The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid somehow manages to reconcile this ambiguous relationship with the country of his birth. It is immensely entertaining to read, romping through the bizarre and familiar past with a curious and knowing voice.