The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid by Bill Bryson

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The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid by Bill Bryson

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Category: Autobiography
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Paul Harrop
Reviewed by Paul Harrop
Summary: Ever-genial, often hilarious, Bill Bryson's early years are reliably entertaining, but maybe lack the coherence and bite of his best travel books.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 416 Date: June 2007
Publisher: Black Swan
ISBN: 978-0552772549

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When Bill Bryson was a boy, he used to watch tornados ripping across the horizon from the safety of his grandfather's farm. A twister would sometimes threaten to head their way, but never did. "We didn't know it at the time," he writes, "but it was killing people as it went."

Watching those whirlwinds seems an apt metaphor for Bryson's early years in the 1950s, and for America at the time. Oblivious to, or fascinated by, the dangers that surrounded them, his family and his nation enjoyed a brief period of apparently invulnerable comfort and acquisition.

It helped that he grew up Iowa. A landlocked agrarian island, its friendly folk belonged to a bygone age even then. In The Thunderbolt Kid, Bryson describes it all with a wistful affection. His - and America's - innocence were to be short-lived. But in the meantime, there were comic books to read, giant fridges to buy and TV shows to watch.

Bryson does well to extract 400 mainly entertaining pages from a happy, uneventful, affluent childhood. Mercifully, his parents - both journalists - were endowed with numerous mild eccentricities. And Bryson's taste for smut is as undiminished here as in his peerless first two books, The Lost Continent: Travels in Small Town America, and Neither Here Nor There: Travels in Europe.

There are hilarious tales involving the glass jars that his mother kept under the sink for last-minute expulsions of 'toity' (the family euphemism for urine). His father's penchant for assembling midnight snacks while wearing nothing but a t-shirt also gives rise to deliciously embarrassing moments.

Such episodes show that, with the possible exception of David Sedaris, few current American comic writers can rival Bill Bryson. Much of his popularity in the UK must be down to his love of the lavatorial. Those who don't share his scatological tastes may be unmoved by this book. But while the scathing edge that distinguished his early volumes is blunted here, at his best, Bryson's apparently effortless but finely-honed prose can still wring snorts of pleasure, from me at least.

All the familiar Bryson devices are there: the silly names ("Miss Squat Little Fat Thing" the teacher); the sly malevolence (his Thunderbolt Kid persona derived from his imagined vaporisation of morons), and the comic hyperbole. The latter is the most potentially wearisome of his habits. Some of the duller facts of his childhood cannot be enlivened even by the wildest comic exaggeration.

Therein lies the main problem with this type of book. Even with Bryson's gift for slightly augmented recollections and infallible eye for absurdity, there's little actual meat or coherence to these tales. Beyond the stories of daffy parents and boyish pranks, not much happens. There are long disquisitions on America's conspicuous consumption and domestic politics in which the young Billy scarcely figures. While Bryson is informatively entertaining as ever with his well-researched facts, hardly any of them impinge upon his young self.

I'm sure his purpose in this was to show how insulated much of the US was from the horrors of lynch mobs and witch hunts, atom bombs and DDT. And he does succeed. But these passages inevitably feel like footnotes to his ostensible subject matter.

The book ends on an elegiac note, mourning the loss of individuality in the surrender of towns like his birthplace, Des Moines to the marching homogenisation of commerce and culture. But at the same time, we know that as soon as he could, Bryson fled his home state for the more bohemian delights of Europe. This suggests that his view of fifties America is somewhat rose-tinted and, as in his book of antipodean travels Down Under, the desire not to offend gets the better of his wit.

However, not wanting want to risk a vaporisation, I'd stress that Bryson's underlying geniality still makes him hard to dislike. And while many might feel that he covered the same territory much better in The Lost Continent, most Bryson fans will find comfort and joy in the cosy, amiable glow of these recollections.

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