Tehelka, September 30, 2006
Bill Bryson wrote his latest book after promising his wife that he would stay at home. He had also promised his publisher that this book would be entertaining. And personally, he missed being funny. So here then is The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid, a memoir that’s likely to make his wife, his publisher, and his regulars rather chuffed.
Bryson has made a delightful career out of stumbling from one place to another. His books have spoken of the looniness of solitary travel, which is filled with strange characters and strange journeys. In a way, Bryson’s traveling life has been similar to his childhood. The book is a solid retelling of absolutely everything from his childhood, like a diary maintained from preschool with the perspective of an adult.
Bryson’s first book, The Lost Continent, written after his father’s death, was about how life had changed in small America since he was young. This one is about how things were, and what his relationship with Des Moines, Iowa, was all about. He grew up in the 50s and 60s, a time that was “fearful, thrilling, interesting, instructive, eye-popping, lustful, eager, troubled, untroubled, confused, serene.” Incidentally, “it was all those things for America too.” The tone that this book starts with is unlike the slightly sour one in his first: “I come from Des Moines. Somebody had to.”
Des Moines, it turns out, wasn’t half bad for a boy. The town had strange characters – and many things seem stranger looking back when you’re grown up – made even stranger by the fact that it was a strange time for America. Bomb drills required children to brace themselves under a desk. “I remember being profoundly amazed,” Bryson writes, “that anyone would suppose that a little wooden desk would provide a safe haven…Once I realized that no one was watching, I elected not to take part. I already knew how to get under a desk and was confident that this was not a skill that would ever need refreshing. Anyway, what were the chances that the Soviets would bomb Des Moines? I mean, come on.”
Bryson’s town in the fifties was arrested by progress and visions of the future, as was the rest of America. Neighbours proudly exhibited their latest television, toilets were cleaned not just by water but with a solid burst of radiation, and the post office promised to deliver mail by guided missile. But the place was puritanical too. Deviant sex, which in those days was anything other than straight sex, was illegal. The church especially, Bryson writes, was in on it. The Roman Catholic Archdiocese declared that sex outside marriage promoted Communism. “Quite how a shag in the haymow helped the relentless march of Marxism was never specified, but it hardly mattered. The point was that once an action was deemed to promote Communism, you knew you were never going to get anywhere near it.”
The anecdotes with which Bryson describes his life and times are made richer by his details and exaggerations: “…he treated me to the hanging spit trick… it wasn’t even like spit – at least not like human spit.” It was “a mossy green with little streaks of red blood in it and, unless my memory is playing tricks, two very small grey feathers protruding at the sides. It was so big and shiny that I could see my reflection in it, distorted, as in an M.C. Escher drawing.” There are memories of his father, a sports writer who demonstrated isometrics in airplanes and saved money by visiting dentists who didn’t use novocaine, and his mother, who sent him to school in his sister’s Capri pants.
After A Short History of Nearly Everything, and four years since his last travel book, this is Bryson’s return to humor and everyday happenings. It is by no means deep, or as insightful as his last one, but as he maintains on page 33: “So this is a book about not very much: about being small and getting larger slowly.”