Bill Bryson has delighted his readers for over a decade with his laugh-filled travel adventures. The book that quite literally set his feet on the bestseller trail was A WALK IN THE WOODS, his frolicsome and misguided adventures on the Appalachian Trail with his dysfunctional high school buddy, Stephen Katz. In THE LIFE AND TIMES OF THE THUNDERBOLT KID, we learn a great deal more about Bill and his friends and how he started his worldwide meanderings.
Bryson was the son of a sports reporter father, Bill Bryson, Sr., and women's page columnist Mary Bryson, who wrote for the Des Moines Register. They were a bit eccentric, according to their author son, and while they loved their children, they seemed a bit distracted in their parenthood role. Thus, Bill and his siblings more or less raised themselves, with Bill attending (or more frequently not attending) Des Moines' finest public schools in its wealthiest neighborhood, the famed South of Grand. Drugs of choice were cigarettes and purloined beer. Accidental arson and occasional alcohol heists were the most grievous crimes. It was still safe for boys to deliver newspapers at dusk and walk alone through the woods without fear.
THE LIFE AND TIMES OF THE THUNDERBOLT KID is more than a collection of tales of a misspent youth, or a nostalgic reminiscence of halcyon times gone by. Bryson has conducted considerable historic mining of the last most peaceful time in America, a time of enormous irony. We were experiencing the greatest technological lifestyle boom in American history, while at the same time worrying that we'd be vaporized by global atomic annihilation. We rejoiced at the vanquishing of the arch enemies of Nazism and Fascism, but were peeking under every bed to find hidden communists in our midst. Joe McCarthy held us in thrall on tiny-screened televisions as he investigated Hollywood for pinko commies, while hours of innocent entertainment in the greatest era in Hollywood musicals played on the giant single screens of the magnificent baroque movie houses. A black man was sentenced to death in Alabama for stealing $1.95 from a white woman as Congress debated civil rights in Washington.
The real wonder of the Thunderbolt Kid is that he grew up at all, let alone in the idyllic oasis of innocence and un-mean streets of Des Moines, Iowa in the 1950s. I knew those streets well, having grown up in central Iowa in small towns that orbited the sun of the Capital City. Visiting Des Moines from nearby Ames or Perry or Boone was a big deal to '50s kids. It was where we went for the annual boys' basketball tournaments in March, or to the opthamologist, or decked out in our Sunday best with a hat and white gloves, dined at Younkers Tea Room or Bishop's Cafeteria. Dating one of those wild boys from Roosevelt High School was akin to discovering original sin. Rumors ran rampant of rich kids raiding their fathers' liquor cabinets while their parents were cruising the Caribbean. Midnight debauchery was taking place on the manicured lawns South of Grand. Our parents would have grounded us until we were 30 if we'd gone out with any of those boys. Rumors? Well, guess what! It was Bill Bryson all along --- along with his band of miscreant friends. Ah, Billy, I wish I'd known ye!
This book is rollicking good fun and will resonate with anyone who remembers any small town in America in the middle of the twentieth century. The times were special, and those small towns are largely gone forever.
"The Thunderbolt Kid grew up and moved on," Bryson writes, with warmth about where he has been. "Imagine having a city full of things no other city had. What a wonderful world that would be. What a wonderful world it was.
"We won't see its like again, I'm afraid."
Reviewed by Roz Shea on September 25, 2007