05 February 2007

The Thunderbolt Kid, by Bill Bryson

February 05 2007 (04:02:00)

The Life and Times of The Thunderbolt Kid. A Memoir.
Broadway Books 2006 270 pages.

Bill Bryson was born in 1951, right between my wife and myself. This book is a celebration of growing up in the 50s and 60s, and of course that's when we grew up, so this is a guaranteed nostalgia hit for us.

The Fifties was a time when the United States of America was at a sort of peak of universal belief that we were Right, that we were the Best, and that God had caused this to happen directly with His own power. It was also a time when some of that belief was shaken, by such events as the Russian success with Sputnik and the rise and fall of Joseph McCarthy.

Bryson points out how unusual, how rich with unique occurences was that time, and quantifies differences between now and then.

"Apart from baseball's greatest home run [and the author's birth] ... 1951 was not a hugely eventful year in America... The war in Korea was in full swing... Julius and Ethel Rosenberg had just been convicted... Oliver Brown sued the local school board ...

"America in 1951 had a population of 150 million ... no interstate highways ... about a quarter as many cars [as today]... Men wore hats and ties almost everywhere. Women prepared every meal ... from scratch. Milk came in bottles. The mailman came on foot. Total government spending was $50 billion a year, compared with $2.5 trillion now."
(page 11)

Bryson describes his youth, his home town of Des Moines, Iowa during his youth, his life with his parents (they were a bit unusual, both worked for the Des Moines Register newspaper), his education (not much of a student by his own account), the mischief (some of it felonious) gotten into by his friends (names changed), many other details of the times, and the adventures of The Thunderbolt Kid.

The Thunderbolt Kid is a fantastic superhero, a personna assumed by Bryson when he wishes to imaginarily zap some offensive adult into a pile of carbon, see through women's clothing with his x-ray vision, or commit some other super-feat not possible for an ordinary mortal. He credits his discovery (or invention) of The Thunderbolt Kid to his discovery of an old partly-motheaten sweater in the family basement. This sweater (depicted on the dust jacket of the book) featured a large yellow zig-zag of cartoon lightning affixed to the chest.

I'm not sure that the Thunderbolt Kid thing worked for me. I have the idea that the book would have been just fine, maybe better, without it. But that's just my opinion.

The Thunderbolt Kid was a pleasing foray into nostalgia, and a thought-provoking reminder of the time when my contemporaries were children -- our truly formative years.

02 February 2007

East of the Mountains, by David Guterson

February 02 2007 (00:59:00)

Although I've lived in Western Washington for over 30 years now, I still remember that I am a transplant. One of the first things I learned to say was "East of the Mountains." This phrase has a very specific meaning here. It refers to the part of Washington State that lies East of the spine of the Cascade Range. Its other three borders are with Canada, Idaho, and Oregon. East of the Mountains is the miracle of drying winds that have transformed the Earth on either side of the Cascades to be so different that it never ceases to amaze. A short drive (if the weather is cooperative) from Puget Sound Country is a land so dry, so brown, so different, that it could be on another planet.

On the West side are rain, fir trees, ferns, moss, greenery, water, flowers, fish, all types of small animals, and millions of people. Cities march down the trough from Canada, starting with Bellingham in the North, then Mount Vernon, Marysville, Everett, Seattle, Tacoma, Olympia; and much farther south, Vancouver, Washington.

East of the Cascade summits is a land of desert, or steppe, watered only sparsely by the Columbia River and boldly by the work of man in the 20th century. This is a land of sagebrush, rattlesnakes, sand, and wind. It is dry, and colored in shades of brown and tan. Some cities dot the desert: Yakima, Ellensburg, and Wenatchee in the Western-Central portion; Spokane, Moses Lake, and the "tri-cities" of Richland - Pasco - Kennewick are scattered about the map.

Dr. Ben Givens is a man at the end of his life. He is a retired thoracic surgeon, and has been diagnosed with terminal colon cancer. He knows better than most that he has no chance of survival. His wife passed on about a year and a half before the story begins.

Ben has decided to end his life in Eastern Washington, in apple country, where he grew up. Instead of a slow, suffering death that will torture him and his family, he'll go well into the dry fields under the pretense of bird hunting and create a plausible accident. He's thought of everything, he doesn't want to burden his family with the spectre of suicide.

Ben's encounters disaster almost immediately as he sets out on what is to be his last journey. On I90, headed for Snoqualmie Pass, he is involved in an accident that wrecks his car and leaves him battered and bruised. Some young people come along and help him, and his journey continues with their assistance.

As he continues on, determined to carry out his mission, he encounters more people, good and bad. Some of them need him, some of them are needed by him.

The Eastern country is described beautifully, and the tone of the text sets the proper mood for this tale of a lonely, sick old man returning to this lonely land where he grew up. Just being in the sagebrush invites introspection; there is no noise but the wind, and a man can walk a long way without encountering another person.

Along with the adventures of the present, we learn about Ben's past, his World War II service, his romance with his wife of so many years. He becomes a person that I will remember for a long time.

How Ben's journey progresses and to what end he comes is worth your time to discover in this very well-done novel.