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."
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.
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