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Sunday, April 08, 2007

The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid
Kevin Wood / Daily Yomiuri Staff Writer
The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid
By Bill Bryson
Read by the author
Audio editions
7-1/2 hours on 6 CDs, unabridged

Bill Bryson, best known for his humorous travelogues (Notes from a Small Island, A Walk in the Woods, In a Sunburned Country) returns to more familiar territory with his latest work, The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid, a memoir of growing up in Des Moines, Iowa, in the '50s and '60s.

The title is derived from Bryson's childhood alter ego, a superhero whose "thundervision" is used to incinerate teachers, parents, classmates, shop clerks and other assorted "morons."
While telling his own story, Bryson also takes pains to put things in context for his audience, supplying statistics and historical notes on the era and opening each chapter with quotations from period newspaper stories.

The 1950s was unquestionably the golden age for Middle America: The booming economy and swift and steady march of technology meant a standard of living that soared at a rate unparalleled before or since. Some Midwestern families went from not having indoor plumbing or electricity to owning color TVs, refrigerators and even air conditioning in the space of a decade. It was the last gasp of what Greil Marcus refers to as the "Old, Weird America" that existed before the era of fast food, network television and retail franchising took their toll on regional differences, a time when department stores and restaurants were strictly local, family-owned enterprises. Bryson rhapsodizes at length about Des Moines' main department store and the specialties of local eateries.

A longtime resident of England who was rewarded for his contributions to the written word with an honorary Order of the British Empire (OBE) in December, Bryson has mostly lost the rough edges of his regional midwestern accent--though the pronunciation of the northern plains is very near the model of the neutral North American accent. His dry, subdued delivery is almost English in its understatement, never succumbing to the overenthusiastic, near manic emoting typical of some comic narrators, regardless of the sometime electric energy of the text. There are no funny voices, sound effects or ham acting here, just solid writing delivered in an almost conversational tone, like a friend telling tales of his own boyhood over a sociable beer.

And those stories cover the broadest range of topics. While Bryson looks back on his childhood and adolescence as a golden era, he does not present a bowdlerized version of his youth. While Des Moines is hardly Hell's Kitchen, we are treated to stories of an onanistic neighbor, class and racial divisions in the town, adolescent lust and Bryson's affiliation with a high school beer bandit whose ultimate caper involved the emptying of a full warehouse over a weekend.

He also writes movingly about his father's considerable skill as a sportswriter and his mother's magical ability to turn food into charcoal. While the book is an affectionate look at the time and place in which Bryson grew up, it also pokes fun at the limited horizons and narrow outlook of his childhood hometown. In a final chapter that revisits Bryson's childhood home and friends 40 years later, one can sense how glad the author is to have come from Des Moines and also how happy he is to have left it when he did. The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid manages the rare feat of embracing nostalgia while eschewing sentimentality.
(Apr. 7, 2007)

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