Book review: “The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid: A Memoir” by Bill Bryson

“The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid” (Broadway Books, paperback, $14.95) just may be the best memoir of the century — no, make that the best memoir ever written since God created the sky and the Earth and uttered the words, “Let there be light.”

At least that’s how Bill Bryson might put it if he were writing this review. And if you didn’t agree with the superlative hyperbolist, then he would surely smite you and your progeny with a flash of “ThunderVision,” vaporizing you to smithereens.

You see, as a child, Bryson imagined himself the son of King Volton, his “late natural father, who had brought me to Earth in a silver spaceship in Earth year 1951 (Electron year 21,000,047,002) shortly before our austere but architecturally exuberant planet exploded spectacularly in a billion pieces of pastel-colored debris.”

His earthly assignment in Des Moines, Iowa: “Perpetuate the Electron powers and creed.” One such power was a laser-like gaze which gave Bryson X-ray vision (sound familiar?) and the ability to zap irritating people into nothingness — a school counselor, for example, who informed him as he prepared to graduate from high school that “it doesn’t appear you are qualified to do much of anything;” a neighborhood bully who pins Bryson to the ground and treats the young writer to the “hanging-spit trick;” an uncle who belched food through a hole in his throat.

Actually, Bryson just might be telling the truth. The “Thunderbolt Kid” is a refreshing memoir of the 1950s. The book breaks entirely from the memoir of today — confessionals of abuse and recovery—and shares the story of Bryson’s very happy, middle-class childhood in the middle of the country during the middle of the last century. But the prose is anything but average. It’s rip-roaring, laugh-out-loud fun. Typical Bryson. Bryson at his funniest. Bryson at the height of his powers.

What’s more — and this is, perhaps, what will make Bryson’s memoir glow like a 10-megaton bomb while his contemporaries’ work topples like “Kaputnik,” the United States’ failed response in 1957 to the Soviets’ “Sputnik”— is that Bryson’s book is not merely a memoir. “Thunderbolt Kid” is also a history book. A history book that students would actually read. The kind that Bryson would have read—had it been around and had he actually shown up for school that week during the 1950s of his childhood.

The protagonist in Bryson’s book — the author as a child — is all boy. He is obsessed with gross bodily functions and with seeing a woman or girl — he’s not picky — naked. He tells tales on his mother and father. How his mother burned every single meal she ever cooked. How his father, while maybe the best sportswriter the world over, was a flat-out cheapskate and paraded around the house bare-bottomed. Some of Bryson’s funniest stories involve his friend Willoughby. Willoughby perfected the art of stealing candy from machines, scoring free sundaes at the local diner and building bombs made of confetti. When he wasn’t stealing, swindling or bomb-making, Willoughby was grounded.

However, the narrator — Bryson as an adult — looks back on the decade in which he grew up with the sobering detail of a social scientist. This isn’t purely a nostalgic tale of what many consider America’s most perfect and innocent decade.

Bryson opens his book in the early 1950s at the advent of television and its related inventions — TV dinners and TV trays — as well as the explosion of automobile manufacturing and cigarette smoking. He ends the decade with an expose on America’s education system called, “Why Johnny Can’t Read,” news of research that showed cigarettes really did cause cancer, subliminal advertising, the scandal involving the television program “Twenty-One,” Dutch elm disease, and the building of Des Moines, with Iowa’s first shopping mall with a “parking lot the size of a New England state”— ostensibly the beginning of the end of downtown USA.

The combination of Bryson’s hyperbolic tale of childhood, combined with his honest look at an era gone by, results in an intelligent book and a good read — and that’s no exaggeration.

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