Bill Bryson: The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid – Review

Note: The contents written below are not the property of the blog owner and are being used for college project, non-commercial purposes only. The original review can be found here. All content belongs to The New York Times and its contributor Jay Jennings. 

The blog post will be taken down after completion of this project.  


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The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid, Bill Bryson. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

After you’ve written about nearly everything, what do you do next? If you are Bill Bryson, author of “A Short History of Nearly Everything,” a masterly epitomizing of the entire body of natural science that spent approximately 15,000 weeks on the best-seller list (without the help of Oprah), and that cloned its own glossy illustrated edition with specially commissioned etchings by Warhol, Picasso and Raphael, your gaze turns inward, or rather downward, toward your navel.

Lucky for the reader of the resulting memoir, “The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid,” Bryson’s navel, like Whitman (both the poet and the sampler), contains multitudes. From that innie (or outie; oddly for such a revealing chronicle, he never specifies), Bryson has produced a book so outlandishly and improbably entertaining, you begin to doubt its veracity. When he writes, for example, that the worst customer to collect money from on his paper route when he was 11, Mrs. Vandermeister, was

“700 years old, possibly 800, and permanently attached to an aluminum walker,”

– Bill Bryson, The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid

You begin to wonder if we’re entering James Frey territory. Or, even less believably:

“Most things in Des Moines in the 1950’s were the best of their type.”

– Bill Bryson, The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid

At the heart of the manifold exaggerations is a much larger truth, a shocking revelation that few memoirists have been so brave to admit: he had a happy childhood.

Just because his family was happy, pace Tolstoy, doesn’t mean it wasn’t strange — that is, the “normal” strange that only 1950’s America has spawned. We got a glimpse of Bryson’s upbringing in his first book, “The Lost Continent” (1989), in which he nominally retraced family car trips while commenting on contemporary American culture and behavior — a dyspeptic “Blue Highways.” (He subsequently ascended the best-seller lists with other works in the humorous-travelogue vein, assaying the Appalachian Trail in “A Walk in the Woods” and traversing Australia for “In a Sunburned Country,” among others.) His reminiscences of his parsimonious sportswriter father and appealingly loopy mother provided some of the most convulsive sections of that first book. In fact, I remember reading it on the couch and disturbing my wife at her kitchen-table academic studies with my howls. When she asked me what was so funny, I would, in reading the passage aloud to her, inevitably be reduced to body-racking, tear-inducing, de-couching laughter.

“I can’t imagine there has ever been a more gratifying time or place to be alive.” – Bill Bryson, The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid

While the pleasures of “Thunderbolt Kid” are less frequently spasmodic, what the book does effect is a continuous wry, nostalgic smile in anyone born during the 50’s. And by “continuous” I don’t mean “continual,” a distinction that Bryson elucidates in “Bryson’s Dictionary of Troublesome Words,” one of several also improbably entertaining books on language he has written, despite, if his memoir is to be believed, being a marginal student in high school and a onetime college dropout before lighting out for England in the 70’s. His baby-boomer contemporaries will no doubt recognize in “Thunderbolt Kid” the penny-pinching tendencies of parents raised during the Depression, the eroticism of Maidenform bra ads, the mayhem that was the Saturday matinee at a large downtown movie palace, little pleasures like taking the cork out of bottle caps, the “literally intoxicating” power of mimeograph paper and the unsupervised freedom children generally enjoyed:

“I knew kids who were pushed out the door at 8 in the morning and not allowed back in until 5 unless they were on fire or actively bleeding.”

– Bill Bryson, The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid 

What keeps the memoir from becoming a sentimental trip down Pleasant Street, a real Des Moines lane, is that, unlike in his schoolboy years, here Bryson has done his homework. He generously lards the personal narrative (as our cholesterol-oblivious mothers larded our food) with facts and cutting observations about the grand themes of the day, like the emergence of television and the development of the hydrogen bomb. He notes with wonder and characteristic sarcasm that Edward Teller and the Atomic Energy Commission envisioned using atomic power for vast civil engineering projects — for instance,

“to blow away irksome impediments to commerce and shipping like the Great Barrier Reef of Australia.”

– Bill Bryson, The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid

Also militating against potential mawkishness is his sparing use of the device promised by the title: that he has a secret superhero identity, the Thunderbolt Kid, whose powers allow him to vaporize tormentors. Save for one extended passage, it appears almost as an afterthought at the end of some chapters, and that’s just as well.

As a humorist, Bryson falls somewhere between the one-liner genius of Dave Barry and the narrative brilliance of David Sedaris. He’s not above sublime lowbrow fat and feces jokes, but at his best he spools out operatically funny vignettes of sustained absurdity that nevertheless remain grounded in universal experience. These accounts, like the description of the bumper-car ride at a run-down amusement park or the tale of a friend’s father’s descent from the high dive at a local lake, defy excerpting; when taken whole, they will leave many readers de-couched.

Occasionally in the course of his reminiscences, Bryson abandons punch lines and demonstrates a lyrical gift for the tactile and noisome nature of childhood (not “noisy” nature; see “Troublesome Words”) that elevates the work to the level of classics in the genre like Laurie Lee’s “Cider With Rosie”:

“I knew more things in the first 10 years of my life than I believe I have known at any time since…. I knew the cool feel of linoleum on bare skin and what everything smelled like at floor level. I knew pain the way you know it when it is fresh and interesting — the pain, for example, of a toasted marshmallow in your mouth when its interior is roughly the temperature and consistency of magma. I knew exactly how clouds drifted on a July afternoon, what rain tasted like, how ladybugs preened and caterpillars rippled, what it felt like to sit inside a bush.”

– Bill Bryson, The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid

He then concludes with an encomium to expelled intestinal gas.

That’s an evocation of childhood that’s movingly true, no exaggeration necessary.

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Fifty Shades of Grey: Inexplicably Popular

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So recently, I decided to give Fifty Shades of Grey a go, since my friend dared me that I wouldn’t be able to get through it. She was wrong by challenging me, because I DID get through it, even it damn near killed me doing so.

In retrospect:

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I know: there are tons and tons of bad reviews for the book out there so I decided not to really review the book but to try and deconstruct it a little bit.

The thing is, I actively encourage people to read this book. Why? Because people (especially writers) need to realize how easy it is to fall into a rut. I have no doubt that E L James thought she was being absolutely brilliant by writing a book about BDSM in Fifty Shades of Grey, and to some extent she was. She just had to screw it up by adding annoying one dimensional characters, a completely unrealistic plot and an even worse ending. Oh and then adding two more books to it.

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Most people discount this book because it came out of fanfiction. Trust me, though it may seem otherwise, fanfiction does more good than harm, and Fifty Shades of Grey (even though I would prefer to call it a dirty rag) wouldn’t even be considered as good fanfiction. It would be called “fluff” which people read to make themselves feel happier about life.

Any story has two, very basic, properties which attracts an audience. First is the technique of writing. The second, is the idea. In this regard, Fifty Shades… fails miserably in both. There are authors whose technique is so mind-blowing that they can make a book about the history of Shakespeare seem fun. (Bill Bryson – my hero.)

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Then, there are other authors whose technique is passable but make up for it by having good, tight, plots and believable characters- naming Rick Riordan as one. For a guy who writes kid stories, he’s held my attention from the tenth grade all the way up to college.

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So how has Fifty Shades… failed in both and yet found such a huge demand?

That is what I find inexplicable. I just don’t get it. I’m sure that there is some deep psychological explanation because there sure isn’t an obvious one.

So, if you’re an aspiring writer, go ahead and read this book to see how writing can go so wrong but just don’t waste money by buying it. I only condone wasting time. Definitely not hard-earned money.

Just know what you’re getting yourself into though.