Saturday, June 07, 2008

Bill Bryson: The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid

This is on loan from my brother. I think it was I who got it for him for Christmas, but no matter who it was, I remember saying “dibs to borrow” when he tore the wrapping paper. I’d dearly love to have all of Bill Bryson’s books, but I’m trying to amass books slowly, in a manner more similar to the gradual formation of a river delta than the sudden appearance of an entire archipelago after an underwater volcanic eruption. So borrowing is good, and it’s even better to get people books then that you want to borrow. They have to store them, you get to read them…

This is a book about growing up in Des Moines in the 1950s. In much of what Bryson has written about the US he returns to the difference between the country he grew up in and the country the way it is now, but this is a book all about it, and not just as an aside. The 1950s was – and Bryson doesn’t deny it – an insane era of nuclear armament and reckless testing, panicked anti-Communism and hateful racism. Yet it is also one of our most iconic eras, especially US-style. The French have cornered a small section in the 1950s nostalgia department (Brigitte Bardot), but the Americans definitely occupy most of it. This age of fabric-wasting skirts, futuristic cars (that still didn’t rule the society the way they do today), diners that weren’t part of a chain of establishments, lots and lots of comic books, lots and lots of kids outside playing. As Bryson points out in the book, there were fantastic new gadgets to buy, and people were still excited by them. Now we are jaded and don’t feel thrilled by owning a fridge – we expect to. He writes about walking down town through the Des Moines of his childhood, when the streets were proper streets with houses all the way out to the sidewalk and possibly even shaded by giant elms. You can tell that he is actually very saddened by how all of it has changed and all those old buildings have been torn down and that streets now are lined with car parks – but he still manages to be funny about it. It makes me sad too.

I laughed my backside off several times, naturally. I was also quite touched by Bryson’s homage to his parents. Both his parents were journalists, and Bryson (proudly) states that had his father left Des Moines to work for a bigger, national newspaper he might have been more famous and well-known as the best baseball-writer of all times, but since he stayed he’s more obscure. The theme of Bryson’s childhood fantasy of being a superhero, the Thunderbolt Kid of the title, that theme I could have lived without really, but it’s okay. It’s not really worked into the book enough though, if I have to be honest about it.

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