Tuesday, December 30, 2014

The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid, by Bill Bryson

Bill Bryson was born in 1951 and raised in Des Moines, Iowa. I was born in 1950 and raised on farms in northern Illinois. Thus, many of the observations about growing up in the 1950s that he makes in this humorous memoir of childhood ring true. I must admit, however, that I was better-behaved than Bryson not, for example, having ever missed school double-digit numbers of days because I simply didn't like to get up in the morning and my mother wasn't inclined to make me do so, discovered that peeing on Lincoln Logs bleached them white (yes, any number of his stories are somewhat gross), or indulged in epic tomfoolery at movie matinees.

While Bryson portrays himself as being chronically in trouble and hated by teachers, his father (a sports writer) as monumentally tight-fisted and obsessed with isometrics, and his mother (also a journalist) as incredibly ditzy, his childhood was happy, in part due to the simplicity of the 1950s. Often, when he reflects on what made the era a good time to grow up and what made his own childhood happy, he seems to resort to listing--data on what made life in the United States enviable in terms of its ease, words heard in the 50s but not used now, predictions about the technological future, foods they didn't eat in their family, nonfood items he had tasted. While at first I found the lists kind of endearing, I eventually grew tired of them. Luckily, their frequency did decline as the book progressed.

Although the book does present a loving portrayal of life in the 1950s, Bryson is not foolishly romantic and, to demonstrate that fact, he includes sections in which he analyzes some of the shortcomings of the decade, including McCarthyism, the arms race, and racism. He also bemoans the rise of consumerism and the homogenization of American towns and cities.

I generally enjoyed the book and occasionally laughed out loud. One section that troubled me covered Bryson's move from an all-white elementary school to a racially mixed junior high. In a five-paragraph section intended, I am  sure, to be funny, he describes white kids realizing they would never be on a sports team again and tiny black kids so tough they could beat up larger white bullies. He follows this with a paragraph and a half about how there was really very little difference between black and white kids and everybody got along. Somehow the five paragraphs intended to be funny were not, and the subsequent paragraph and a half on racial harmony were unconvincing.

On the other hand, I did like the brief excerpts from Des Moines newspaper stories and historic photos that began every chapter. They were funny and suggestive of the tenor of the times.

Favorite passage:
We didn't call it the kitchen in our house. We called it the Burns Unit.

. . . I knew more things in the first ten years of my life than I believe I have known at any time since. . .. I knew what the world looked like when viewed through a Jell-O lens. . . . I knew pain the way you know it when it is fresh and interesting--the pain, for example, of a toasted marshmallow in your mouth when its interior is roughly the temperature and consistency of magma. I knew exactly how clouds drifted on a July afternoon, what rain tasted like, how ladybugs preened and caterpillars rippled, what it felt like to sit inside a bush.

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