Friday, September 6, 2013

The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid: A Memoir

The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid: A Memoir
by Bill Bryson

(Edited) Blurb:
Bill Bryson re-creates the life of his family and his native city in the 1950s in all its transcendent normality—a life at once completely familiar to us all and as far away and unreachable as another galaxy. It was, he reminds us, a happy time, when automobiles and televisions and appliances (not to mention nuclear weapons) grew larger and more numerous with each passing year, and DDT, cigarettes, and the fallout from atmospheric testing were considered harmless or even good for you. He brings us into the life of his loving but eccentric family, including affectionate portraits of his father, a gifted sportswriter for the local paper and dedicated practitioner of isometric exercises, and OF his mother, whose job as the home furnishing editor for the same paper left her little time for practicing the domestic arts at home. The many readers of Bill Bryson’s earlier classic, A Walk in the Woods, will greet the reappearance in these pages of the immortal Stephen Katz. He is joined in the Bryson gallery of immortal characters by the demonically clever Willoughby brothers, who apply their scientific skills and can-do attitude to gleefully destructive ends.

Warm and laugh-out-loud funny, and full of his inimitable, pitch-perfect observations, The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid is as wondrous a book as Bill Bryson has ever written. It will enchant anyone who has ever been young.
My Reaction:
First, I edited the publisher's blurb mainly because it was way too long-- but also because parts of it felt misleading-- as does the title itself, imho.

This (a read-aloud with Donald) was my third time reading Bryson's works.  The first was A Walk in the Woods, which was amusing or educational in parts, odd in others.  The second was... I'm not sure of the title... Life on a Small Island, I think.  We were disappointed that it seemed to be geared toward the English-- or at least people more familiar with the lay of the land than we were-- and spent too much time talking about how much things had changed since his first time passing through the area.  (Fascinating for a native, but not for us.)  We eventually decided that since we weren't enjoying it, it wasn't worth our time, so we left it unfinished. 

So, this one... It was extremely uneven, from my perspective.  I enjoyed some of it, but not all-- or even most of it...

--  The parts about Bryson's family were probably the strongest sections of the book.  Some of the other reminiscences were also entertaining (such as the chapter about the rural town where his grandparents lived).

--  If you grew up in Des Moines, Iowa -- especially in the 1950s/1960s-- you're probably more likely to enjoy this book than are the rest of us. 

--  The little "history lessons" took up too much of the book.  A few of them were interesting, but at some points, I skipped paragraphs.  (Honestly, I wondered if some of them were even accurate.  It's difficult to inspire confidence when you bounce back and forth among obvious hyperbole, "embellished" memories, and history.)  I wanted a book of humorous personal recollections-- not this author's version of national history.  I was annoyed that Bryson couldn't resist the temptation to occasionally inject his political opinions into the book.*  It's not funny, Bill.  It seems petty, and it alienates a good portion of your audience-- not that you care.  (Also, you've spent most of your adult life in England, so... You know what?  I don't really give a flying fig what you think about the U.S., politically or otherwise.  ~insincerely sweet smile~)

--  There was a little too much "Oh, how things have changed for the worse!" -- "So much has been lost!"  --  "Big chain stores and fast food franchises killed the glory of the tiny, mom-and-pop shops and charming diners!"  --  "Americans work too much!" -- "Consumerism is evil!" -- etc.  I think he tried not to be too preachy, but... I still got that vibe.  That obnoxious Baby Boomer attitude.  That insinuation of "Thank God I was born when I was, because the world's gone to hell in the meantime, and you kids of today will never know what you missed!"   

--  What was with all the gross stuff?  I could've done without it-- but if you took it all away, goodness only knows how many pages you'd have to remove.

-- On a similar note: What was with all the profanity?  Yeah, I know the 50s weren't as squeaky clean as black-and-white sitcom reruns might have us believe, but... Meh.

--  Some of Bryson's memories that were meant to be humorous were actually more disgusting-- or shocking-- or just plain unpleasant and mean-spirited than they were funny.  Take, for example, the bit about going to the lake with that kid he didn't like.  We were waiting for something funny to happen, but no.  The funny/wonderful part was that some people little Billy didn't like got hurt while he watched.  (They hadn't even done anything to him to give him a reason not to like them-- or at least, the memoir made no mention of it, if they had.)  Then there's all the hooliganism.  (Glorified hooliganism, at that.) Exaggerated for humor's sake?  Maybe, but... still not funny.  Also, I realize that at a certain age boys develop a natural curiosity about and fascination with the female form, but it was emphasized perhaps a little too often for my tastes.  (Didn't the rotten little brat think about anything but naked women?)

Based on other reviews I've skimmed, it seems that Bryson's "travel books" are better than this memoir, so maybe I'll still try one or two of the others-- In a Sunburned Country sounds promising-- but I won't be keeping our (library book sale) copy of this one.

* One of his more obnoxious political comments comes near the end of the thirteenth chapter:
"A quarter of young American males were in the armed forces in 1968.  Nearly all the rest were in school, in prison, or were George W. Bush.  For most people, school was the only realistic option for avoiding military service."
For your reading pleasure:  Was author Bill Bryson a draft dodger or draft evader during the Vietnam War?  (I leave you to draw your own conclusions regarding the pot calling the kettle black.)