First, let me say for the record that I firmly believe Bill Bryson can do no wrong. I have read each of his books, and each has been pure delight. Something about his mix of dry wit, occasional potty humor, awe of the beautiful, and immense research always strikes me as one of the best literary combinations there is. If, for some reason, you were hoping to see a negative review here, you won’t find it.
Bryson, despite writing most of his books either from England or New England, grew up in 1950s Iowa, perhaps as disparate a pairing as one could ever achieve. Having been a Midwest boy myself (except the four years spent in New Mexico), I feel a certain connection to Bryson’s past (some of which has failed to be changed by 40 years): perhaps that connection would be lost to some readers. But while this blazes familiar territory to those familiar with Bryson’s The Lost Continent, I feel like it has the most in common with Made In America, specifically the parts about the mid-20th century and its associated franchises and products. When Bryson slips into factual mode in Thunderbolt Kid, it takes me back to my joyous moments reading Made in America for the first time.
While everything Bryson does has a touch of the personal, this is the first time he’s attempted a memoir, and in some ways it’s almost strange to read, having in recent years become accustomed not so much to his travel accounts, but rather to his more scholarly work (e.g. A Short History of Nearly Everything). I call Thunderbolt Kid a memoir, but in actuality it’s stuck somewhere between fiction and memoir: Bryson tells the story of his childhood in a manner of a Tall Tale, describing himself at times as the Thunderbolt Kid, an alien like Superman who has the power to carbonize morons with a glare. You’ll find exaggerations throughout the book, such as when Bryson recalls neighborhood football games consisting of several thousand children. It took me a few chapters to get used to, but I found the style charming.
And Bryson is funny—oh lord is he funny. Though one would not think it, he shares some territory with famed humor columnist Dave Barry. Sometimes Bryson’s wit is dry and English, but he isn’t afraid of enough course language or bathroom humor to give his readers some cheap laughs. Take the following passage, which I attempted to read to my parents (both grew up in Iowa/Nebraska in the 1950s). I say attempted, because I was laughing so hard that tears were streaming down my face and I was having trouble speaking, but the excerpt was still funny enough to have my mother giggling so hard she almost fell over.
They insisted on knowing strange things, which I found bewildering, If you asked to go to the restroom, they wanted to know whether you intended to do Number 1 or Number 2, a curiosity that didn’t strike me as entirely healthy. Besides, these were not terms used in our house. In our house, you either went toity or had a BM (for bowel movement), but mostly you just “went to the bathroom” and made no public declarations with regard to intent. So I hadn’t the faintest idea, the first time I requested permission to go, what the teacher meant when she asked me if I was going to do number one or number two.
“Well, I don’t know,” I replied frankly and in a clear voice. “I need to do a big BM. It could be as much as a three or a four.”
My mother, perhaps wanting to cover up her own amusement at crude humor, also indignantly remembered aloud that her teachers really did always want to know which sort of waste you were going to be excreting, and come to think of it, why did they want to know?
Strangely, Bryson would sometimes slip out of his Midwestern reverie and muse about events in the world at large. At least an entire page late in the book was dedicated to some of the awful things that happened to black men in the south during that time, apropos of nothing except to give context to his own unexceptionable first experiences with blacks a chapter later. But he also talks about world politics a bit, and this prose, too, is enjoyable as ever, but tends to disrupt the flow of a memoir so playfully confined to the imagination of young Billy.
I mentioned at the beginning of this review that I would have nothing bad to say about Bryson. That’s true: I never do, and the thrill of having anything by him come out easily overcomes any deficiencies that may or may not be in the book. The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid is expectedly sheer joy to read.