The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid
By Bill Bryson
(Broadway Books, Hardcover, 9780767919364, 288pp.)
Publication Date: October 17, 2006
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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.
Bill Bryson's bestselling books include A Walk in the Woods, I'm a Stranger Here Myself, In a Sunburned Country, Bryson's Dictionary of Troublesome Words, and A Short of History of Nearly Everything, which earned him the 2004 Aventis Prize. Bryson lives in England with his wife and children.
“A charming, funny recounting of growing up in Des Moines during the sleepy 1950s. Bryson combines nostalgia, sharp wit and a dash of hyperbole to recreate his childhood in the rural Midwest. A great, fun read, especially for Baby Boomers nostalgic for the good old days.”
–Kirkus Reviews *Starred*
“While many memoirs convey a bittersweet nostalgia, Bill Bryson’s loving look at his childhood in The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid is genuinely sweet. Framed within young Bryson’s fantasy of being a superhero, it matches the author’s sparkling wit with his vivid, candid memories of 1950s America. Adding a healthy dose of social history, Bryson tells a larger story, with vignettes that reveal the gap between America’s postwar glow and its underlying angst. Bryson also touchingly recalls his father’s career as a sportswriter, his mother’s awkward experiments with cooking and the outrageous adventures of his infamous traveling companion, Stephen Katz.”
–Publishers Weekly, Fall Preview
“Bill Bryson’s laugh-out-loud pilgrimage through his Fifties childhood in heartland America is a national treasure. It’s full of insights, wit, and wicked adolescent fantasies.”
–Tom Brokaw, NBC News
“Bryson recounts the world of his younger self, buried in comic books in the Kiddie Corral at the local supermarket, resisting civil defense drills at school, and fruitlessly trying to unravel the mysteries of sex. His alter ego, the Thunderbolt Kid, born of his love for comic-book superheroes and the need to vaporize irritating people, serves as an astute outside observer of life around him. His family’s foibles are humorously presented, from his mother’s burnt, bland cooking to his father’s epic cheapness.
The larger world of 1950s America emerges through the lens of ‘Billy’s’ world, including the dark underbelly of racism, the fight against communism, and the advent of the nuclear age.”
“Travel humorist Bryson took a decisive stand regarding his hometown almost 20 years ago when he published the story “Fat Girls in Des Moines” in Granta magazine. Now the author delves more deeply into his midwestern roots in a bittersweet laugh-out-loud recollection of his growing-up years. This affectionate portrait wistfully recalls the bygone days of Burns and Allen and downtown department stores but with a good-natured elbow poke to the ribs.”
"Takes us on yet another amiable ramble through terrain viewed with his characteristic mixture of bemused wit, acerbic astonishment and sweet benevolence…we come closest to the real Bryson in this, his first true memoir…encompasses so much of human experience that you want to smile and sob at once…Bryson’s evocation of an era is near perfect: tender, hilarious and true. "
–The Times (UK)
"A wittily incisive book about innocence, and its limits, but in no sense an innocent book…Like Alan Bennett, another ironist posing as a sentimentalist, Bryson can play the teddy-bear and then deliver a sudden, grizzly-style swipe…might tell us as much about the oddities of the American way as a dozen think-tanks. "
"Always witty and sometimes hilarious…wonderfully funny and touching."
–Literary Review (UK)
"A funny, effortlessly readable, quietly enchanted memoir…Bryson also provides a quirky social history of America…he always manages to slam on the brakes with a good joke just when things might get sentimental. "
–Daily Mail (UK)
"He can capture the flavour of the past with the lightest of touches…marvellous set pieces…As a chronicler of the foibles and absurdities of daily life, Bryson has few peers. "
–Sunday Telegraph (UK)
"The beautifully realized elegiac tone of his childhood memoir invites readers to go tumbling down the rabbit hole of memory into the best days of their lives…by turns playful affectionate, gently mocking, laugh-out-loud funny and even wistfully sad. His greatest gift is as a humorist, however, so it is the snickers, the guffaws and the undignified belly laughs he delivers on almost every page that make it worth buying…probably the funniest book you’ll read this year. No, dammit. It is the funniest book you’ll find anytime soon. "
–Sydney Morning Herald
"Is this the most cheerful book I’ve ever read, or the saddest?...hilarious…a lovely, happy book. "
–London Evening Standard
"Bryson [writes] with a whiff of irony and a stronger perfume of affection, but never the stink of sentimentality. Darting between his life and the trajectory of America, he slips in a few key contextualising details, which he deploys with the same deft ease that made his A Short History of Nearly Everything so sneakily edifying…very few [memoirs] contain a well of happiness this deep, or this complexly rendered."
–Scotland on Sunday