The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid: A Memoir

by Bill Bryson

Published by Broadway Books

273 pages, 2006





When We Were Radiantly Unsophisticated

Reviewed by Aaron Blanton


When Bill Bryson leads us on an adventure, we know it will be a good place to follow. We know we'll laugh and learn and just revel from the armchair in which we're traveling.

When, for instance, we journeyed with him In A Sunburned Country, we saw Australia as no one had ever displayed it. Raw and young and vital and filled with things that looked curious when viewed through Bryson's ever-inquisitive eyes. In A Walk In the Woods he showed us a part of the United States that very few people ever see: the Appalachian Trail. And here again, we laughed at his antics, enjoyed his adventure and learned a thing or two despite ourselves.

His latest book, The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid, is very different from previous adventures, though you can't help feeling his stamp. This time, however, we follow him in a time machine as he journeys back to his own 1950s childhood in Des Moines, Iowa. "So this is a book about not very much," he writes, "about being small and getting bigger slowly."

And, in a way, he's right: it's not a big story, as we tend to think of big stories these days. No autistic sister. No child abuse. No tragedies. Just a pretty normal childhood in a time that has been painted in iconic colors as we've looked back over our shoulders. All American Graffiti and Happy Days. Bryson's coloring may be no less iconic -- he's American and human, after all -- but the colors he uses have a definitely homespun feel and -- because this is Bryson -- his recollections are peppered with facts, many of them either humorous or stated in a way that just makes you laugh.

According to the Gallup organization 1957 was the happiest year ever recorded in the United States of America. I don't know that anyone has ever worked out why that largely uneventful year should have marked the giddy peak of American bliss, but I suspect it is more than coincidental that the very next year was the year that the New York Giants and the Brooklyn Dodgers dumped their hometown fans and decamped to California.

Aside from social snippets like this -- and there are lots of them -- we see into the Bryson household -- and into the heart of young Billy -- in those seminal years. For American readers, many of his observations will bring their own childhoods to mind and I suppose non-American readers will feel the same interested response to the exotic that In A Sunburned Country held for me. Unsurprisingly, the entries on food bring both a stab of nostalgia and great wallops of laughter.

We were really radiantly unsophisticated. I remember being surprised to learn at quite an advanced age that a shrimp cocktail was not, as I had always imagined, a predinner alcoholic drink with a shrimp in it.

All our meals consisted of leftovers. My mother had a seemingly inexhaustible supply of foods that had already been to the table, sometimes repeatedly. Apart from a few perishable dairy products, everything in the fridge was older than I was, sometimes by many years .... I can only assume that my mother did all of her cooking in the 1940s so that she could spend the rest of her life surprising herself with what she could find under cover at the back of the fridge.

In many ways The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid is my favorite Bryson to date. There's a sweetness here, and not the saccharine kind. There's a genuine niceness about Bryson, his recollections, his family, his life. That sweetness, that niceness has been apparent, in one way or another, in all of this author's books. Maybe it's just that it's never been quite this personal before. And the window into Bill Bryson's youth is a fun place to follow, indeed. | November 2006


Aaron Blanton is an expatriate Kentuckian writer and musician living outside of the United States. Most of the time, he's happy to be alive.