Wednesday, September 20, 2006

"The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid"

Bill Bryson's The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid is due to hit the bookstores in October.

I'm a big fan of Bryson's and especially recommend his In a Sunburned Country, A Walk in the Woods, and A Short History of Nearly Everything.

Here's the publisher's pitch for The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid:

From one of the most beloved and bestselling authors in the English language, a vivid, nostalgic, and utterly hilarious memoir of growing up in the 1950s

Bill Bryson was born in the middle of the American century—1951—in the middle of the United States—Des Moines, Iowa—in the middle of the largest generation in American history—the baby boomers. As one of the best and funniest writers alive, he is perfectly positioned to mine his memories of a totally all-American childhood for 24-carat memoir gold. Like millions of his generational peers, Bill Bryson grew up with a rich fantasy life as a superhero. In his case, he ran around his house and neighborhood with an old football jersey with a thunderbolt on it and a towel about his neck that served as his cape, leaping tall buildings in a single bound and vanquishing awful evildoers (and morons)—in his head—as "The Thunderbolt Kid."

Using this persona as a springboard, Bill Bryson re-creates the life of his family and his native city in the 1950s in all its transcendent normality—a life at once completely familiar to us all and as far away and unreachable as another galaxy. It was, he reminds us, a happy time, when automobiles and televisions and appliances (not to mention nuclear weapons) grew larger and more numerous with each passing year, and DDT, cigarettes, and the fallout from atmospheric testing were considered harmless or even good for you. He brings us into the life of his loving but eccentric family, including affectionate portraits of his father, a gifted sportswriter for the local paper and dedicated practitioner of isometric exercises, and OF his mother, whose job as the home furnishing editor for the same paper left her little time for practicing the domestic arts at home. The many readers of Bill Bryson’s earlier classic, A Walk in the Woods, will greet the reappearance in these pages of the immortal Stephen Katz, seen hijacking literally boxcar loads of beer. He is joined in the Bryson gallery of immortal characters by the demonically clever Willoughby brothers, who apply their scientific skills and can-do attitude to gleefully destructive ends.

Warm and laugh-out-loud funny, and full of his inimitable, pitch-perfect observations, The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid is as wondrous a book as Bill Bryson has ever written. It will enchant anyone who has ever been young.

The Guardian generously offers four excerpts from the book: click here, here, here, and here.

Emma Brockes interviewed Bryson:
If [Paul] Theroux's travelogues offer butch intellect and PJ O'Rourke's hot polemic, then Bryson's shtick is his regular guy act, the sort of guy who expresses approval with the term "neat" and has tantrums outside locked guesthouses and responds to set-back with the air of a man thoroughly resigned to his own ridiculousness.
All that may be accurate--and Bryson admits to Theroux's influence (though finding him "too grumpy")--but the memoirist who I thought of as I read the excerpts was David Sedaris. With both men it's impossible to tell how much comic, creative license colors the facts. The big difference is that the funniest bits of Sedaris' stories usually play at his own expense, while Bryson's jokes are more frequently at the expense of others (though there is nothing cruel about them).

Here's an exception:

My mother's lack of recall was legendary. "Well, I had no idea you didn't like cottage cheese," my mom would say in something like amazement one day and the next night there would be cottage cheese again.

Just occasionally her forgetfulness strayed into rather more dismaying territory, especially when she was pressed for time. I recall one particularly rushed and disorganised morning when I was still quite small - small enough, at any rate, to be mostly trusting and completely stupid - when she gave me my sister's old capri pants to wear to school. They were a brilliant lime green, very tight, and had little slits at the bottom. They only came about three quarters of the way down my calves. I stared at myself in the back hall mirror in a kind of confused disbelief. I looked like Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity.

"This can't be right, Mom," I said. "These are Betty's old capri pants, aren't they?"

"No, honey," my mom replied soothingly. "They're pirate pants. They're very fashionable. I believe Kookie Byrnes wears them on 77 Sunset Strip."

Kookie Byrnes, a munificently coiffed star on this popular weekly television show, was a hero to me, and indeed to most people who liked interestingly arranged hair, and he was capable of endearingly strange things, that's for sure. That's why they called him Kookie. Even so, this didn't feel right.

"I don't think he can, Mom. Because these are girls' pants."

"He does, honey."

"Do you swear to God?"

"Oom," she said distractedly. "You watch this week. I'm sure he does."

"But do you swear to God?"

"Oom," she said again.

So I wore them to school and the laughter could be heard for miles. It went on for most of the day. The principal, Mrs Unnaturally Enormous Bosom, who in normal circumstances was the sort of person who wouldn't get off her ass if her chair was on fire, made a special visit to have a look at me and laughed so hard she popped a button on her blouse.

Kookie Byrnes, of course, never wore anything remotely like capri pants. I asked my sister about this after school. "Are you kidding?" she said. "Kookie Byrnes is not homosexual."

Boyd Tonkin writes of the book:
Like Alan Bennett, another ironist posing as a sentimentalist, Bryson can play the teddy-bear and then deliver a sudden, grizzly-style swipe. Which doesn't make his book any less engaging a slice of baby-boomer heaven than its hype now pretends. Yet asperity vies with affection. While other superheroes of the time battled Commie agents, the Thunderbolt Kid had a more specific target in his sights: "I killed morons. Still do."
Tonkin catches the shiv disguised in the velvet nostalgia but Bel Mooney pretends to not see it.

Here is another excerpt about Bryson's mother's cooking.

--Marshal Zeringue